January 23, 2020


Alkan: Symphonie pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 4-7; Concerto pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 8-10. Paul Wee, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Hummel: Piano Concertos, Volume 2—Concerto in A, WoO 24a; Concerto for Piano, Violin and Orchestra, Op. 17. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano; Stefano Barneschi, violin; La Galante and Milano Classica conducted by Didier Talpain. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.

     Thanks to some remarkable performers with a strong commitment to reviving the undeservedly neglected works of undeservedly neglected composers, a great deal more attention is being paid nowadays to people who for many years languished in obscurity – such as Charles-Valentin Alkan and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. It can be argued that, to a certain extent, Alkan and Hummel were victims of their own decisions, or at least their own time periods. Alkan shut himself almost completely away from the public eye for decades, and Hummel became better known for his occasional quarrels with Beethoven than for his own compositional and pianistic skill – besides which, he was a musical transition figure, studying with Mozart and later adopting a highly skilled form of piano performance that nevertheless did not mount to the levels already expected of virtuosi by the time Hummel died in 1837. Those levels were raised to astonishing heights by, among others, Alkan. Interestingly, there are some direct connections between Alkan and Hummel, one of the most musically interesting being the fact that both made solo-piano transcriptions of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. A musically adept and sufficiently clever pianist really ought to record both versions on the same CD. One nomination for that recording: Paul Wee, a full-time attorney and part-time piano virtuoso who, on the strength of his new Alkan recording for BIS, could take his pianism to the world’s concert halls anytime if he tires of the world of law. Wee’s pairing of two major works made up of seven of Alkan’s 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs is an inspired one, showing how the composer’s enormous compositional and performance skills, in combination, led him to create piano-only versions of a symphony and a piano concerto so adeptly that the orchestral parts scarcely seem to be “missing” in any sense (given that, of course, they do not exist). The primary way in which these two works fit into the set of minor-key études is through their key structure: to conform to the sequence needed to circle through all the minor keys, the movements of the Symphonie and Concerto must be written in specific, successive keys. And so they are. Beyond that, they are “études” only in the grandest and most expansive sense of the word, being “studies” in pretty much every pianistic technique that Alkan could muster. And he knew just about all of them. Wee is thoroughly unintimidated by this music, his technical prowess being matched by interpretative intelligence that skillfully brings forth the highly skilled and intricate manner in which Alkan makes the solo piano sound like an orchestra or an orchestra-with-piano-soloist. In Wee’s readings, these works actually sound as if they are transcriptions (although scarcely reductions) of orchestral music: a listener can practically assign certain melodic lines to particular instruments and, in the Concerto, can more or less hear where the solo piano would come to the fore and where the “orchestra” would take the lead. These are performances that are as remarkable for their carefully modulated elegance as for their sheer virtuosity. Wee is especially sensitive to the dark, even funereal elements of both pieces, the Marche funèbre of the Symphony and portions of the curiously mercurial Adagio of the Concerto. But the single most impressive movement here is the enormous Allegro assai that opens the Concerto. This movement is a monster, running a full 30 minutes – longer than the entire four-movement Symphonie. It is structured with tremendous care and for maximum effect, building logically throughout and adhering to traditional form – all while expanding every thematic and developmental element without ever sounding as if it is stretching anything beyond some theoretical maximum. Simply getting through this movement is a major feat for a pianist; getting through it with a pacing and as clear a structural feeling as Wee has for the material is truly remarkable. Alkan’s Symphonie and Concerto test the limits of any piano player: it is partly because of the sheer complexity and performance difficulty of his music that Alkan remained so long in obscurity. However, some pianists – still only a handful – now find in Alkan challenges that include those of technique but go well beyond them into interpretative realms that border on the philosophical. Wee shows with this recording that he is one of that select group.

     Nothing in Hummel’s piano music is as splendidly adventurous as Alkan’s creations, but that is scarcely a justification for the infrequency with which Hummel’s keyboard concertos are performed. It is past time for a full presentation of them – on fortepiano, for which Hummel wrote, and with period instruments. And it is possible that Brilliant Classics is in the process of producing a cycle featuring the very fine Alessandro Commellato on fortepiano. However, it is only possible, not certain, because the new Volume 2 featuring Commellato is appearing seven years after the first volume, and it offers recordings from 2018, while the prior release included ones from 2009 and 2010. If this is an ongoing project, it is certainly one with a long time horizon. And the specifics of the releases are curious: the first included one mature concerto (Op. 85, in A minor), a concertino (Op. 73), and the Introduction & Rondo brillant, Op. 127 – that is, only a single full-scale piano concerto. Volume 2 also includes just one piano concerto, and it is a very early one in A (WoO 24a, the second that Hummel wrote). It is paired with another early work, the Op. 17 concerto for piano, violin and orchestra. So after the release of two volumes quite a few years apart, we have but one of Hummel’s four youthful keyboard concertos and just one of the six from his maturity. It is hard to see the rhyme or reason of this. What is not hard to see, however – or, more to the point, to hear – is the beauty and poise that Hummel brought to his writing for piano and orchestra. That is everywhere apparent in both the pieces on the new release. The concerto dates to sometime between 1795 and1800 and is far closer in spirit to Mozart’s world than to that of, say, Beethoven, whose Concerto No. 2 (the first written of the set of five for which he is primarily known) dates to the same time period. Yet Hummel’s distinctive sensibilities are already in evidence here. He favors the upper reaches of the fortepiano – the instrument’s very first entry is notably high – and is already writing in the display-prone “brillant” style that he was to employ many times in later works (including in Op. 127 from Commellato’s earlier volume). Hummel’s penchant for dramatic contrast comes through in the finale of the concerto in A as he dips into F-sharp minor for a central episode within what is otherwise a cheery rondo. This is music written for effect rather than deep expression, and it does indeed come across effectively here. So does the piano-and-violin work, which dates to about 1805, a year after Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, but which again may be said to suffer by comparison if one seeks high seriousness rather than more-surface-level enjoyment. Hummel’s work again reflects Mozart and again is something of a display piece. Here the very high writing is more for the violin than the piano – and Hummel produces a first-movement cadenza that is elaborate, complex and altogether intriguing. Hummel leaves the third-movement cadenza up to the performer, and Commellato has an especially delightful way with it, among other things making considerable use of his 1825 Böhm fortepiano’s “janissary stop,” a special pedal designed to get the piano to reproduce what were at the time considered “Turkish” percussion sounds. The “double concerto,” like the fortepiano concerto also heard on this disc, features a pleasant final rondo that, once again, includes a strongly contrasting middle section – here in G minor – that only adds to the theatricality of the whole. These early Hummel works show a composer very much at home in his keyboard writing and very much attuned to the taste of his audience: the music is light but not flippant, very well-constructed, and elegant in mixing echoes of an earlier time with newer approaches to harmony, key structure and orchestral emphasis (notably in the woodwinds). Hummel may still be a bit too much “of his own time” to be fully engaging for today’s listeners, but if this apparent series of piano concertos continues to showcase such fine keyboard and original-instrument-ensemble playing as Commellato and Didier Talpain offer in Volumes 1 and 2, it is reasonable to hope that Hummel will again find an audience appreciative of the balance and grace that are everywhere apparent in his music.

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