If you'd like to access the full scope of Alkan's quirky style in bite-sized proportions rather than piling into the Concerto for Solo Piano, Les Quartre Ages, and other large-scale concoctions, here's a disc for you. Esquisses (Sketches) contains 49 piano miniatures, each lasting from 43 seconds to a little more than four minutes. Alkan apparently composed these over a 15-year span. He eventually partitioned the collection into four volumes, arranged according to key sequence.
Alkan's one of music's originals, a relatively neglected composer valued for his highly original, often visionary keyboard works accessible only to the most skilled virtuosos. Marc-André Hamelin certainly fills that bill and almost outdoes himself on this disc, playing with breathtaking virtuosity and imaginative insight. The Symphony for solo piano is just a four-movement work of symphonic scope and color. The Symphony was part of an even bigger work, the Opus 39 Études, whose 12 pieces include Alkan's best music. The three brief pieces that follow have strong attractions, deep spirituality prime among them. The final three pieces from his early Opus 15 set exemplify Alkan the Romantic. Again, Hamelin makes light of their technical difficulties, while shaping them sensitively. Notable are Le vent, where the right-hand runs make you hear the whistling wind and Morte, another powerful funeral march.