April 01, 2021


Charles-Valentin Alkan: Grand Sonate “Les Quatre Âges de la vie,” Op. 33; Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op. 15. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Symphonie pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 4-7; Salut, cendre du pauvre! Paraphrase, Op. 45; Super flumina Babylonis—Paraphrase du psaumme 137, Op. 52; Trois Marches quasi da cavalleria, Op. 37; Alleluia, Op. 25; Marche funèbre, Op. 26; Marche triomphale, Op. 27. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

     When the impossibly complex music of Alkan meets the impossibly fluent pianism of Mark Viner, the result is, quite possibly, one of the great recorded piano cycles of our time. Viner is in the process of assembling all the piano music of Alkan, a feat that no one has even attempted before and that now runs to four CDs out of a projected total of 17 (more or less). Alkan, ever since Raymond Lewenthal introduced his music to a new generation of performers and listeners some 50 years ago, has become something of a Mount Everest for pianists, a monumental edifice that must be scaled because it is there – or, more accurately, because modern pianists now know it is there. Alkan’s works are so intense and often so strange that they require formidable technical skills combined with an interpretative worldview that can accept the outré as merely an element of a piece’s effects.

     Viner “gets” this, and it shows in all his performances. It shows in his writing, too: he provides extensive notes for each Piano Classics CD in the Alkan series, and within them he translates various commentaries and remarks by Alkan himself and by critics of Alkan’s time and musicians such as Liszt. The result is that each disc in this series is a multifaceted experience combining interpretative excellence, academic discussion, and a high level of understanding of the significance of Alkan’s piano music as well as the extent of its aural impact.

     The third and fourth volumes both combine a major work of substantial importance with additional material of somewhat lesser interest and/or quality. The approach is interesting, allowing listeners to experience some of Alkan’s greatest piano music while also hearing the undeniable quality and unusual sonorities and approaches to be found even in some of his less-towering works. Volume 3 features the truly monumental Grand Sonate “Les Quatre Âges de la vie,” which deserves to be called bizarre (an adjective applicable to a great deal of Alkan’s music, usually as a compliment). A representation of human life at the ages of 20, 30, 40 and 50, the sonata starts at a headlong pace that seems (like much of Alkan’s music) impossible for a pianist to sustain, and then slows down, movement by movement, ending with an “extremely slow” finale that, without knowledge of the work’s underlying program, comes across as a distinct letdown. The sonata is unified more by programmatic content than by musical ideas, and as a result, the second movement, marked Quasi-Faust, can be and often is played as a standalone piece – in which guise it clearly displays Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles themes and intermingles them intriguingly. In context, though, the movement is even better, appearing between a frantic and highly scattered opening movement and a “happy family” third movement that is almost (but not quite) disarming in its (relative) simplicity. Viner, an exceptionally thoughtful pianist, not only surmounts the immense technical difficulties of the sonata but also gives it as much cohesiveness as possible – which is to say, musically, not very much, but enough to make the 37-minute totality a strong sonic experience as well as an emotionally trenchant one. The sonata is coupled with the third of the four sets of “genre pieces” that Alkan wrote as Opp. 12, 13, 15 and 16 (there is no Alkan Op. 14). Within the pathétique genre, these three works are character pieces, bearing the evocative titles Aime-moi, Le vent and Morte. They are not nearly as successful in their expressiveness as are the movements of the sonata, yet they are filled with exceptional pianistic effects that are left to the interpreting pianist to figure out: they have no expression marks, a highly unusual situation. The first piece has a kind of beseeching quality to it; the second uses effective tone painting to contrast wind sounds (which Alkan figured out how to evoke from a percussion instrument) with a kind of dirge; and the third, which opens with the Dies irae, is jagged and intermittently intense. The pieces have many effective moments but, as a totality, seem as if they are trying a bit too hard to be demonstratably programmatic. Yet here as in the sonata, Viner uses his mastery of the technical demands of the music to maximize its communicative potential – to excellent effect.

     The fourth CD in the Alkan series features one of the largest and most complex works among the many large and complex ones that Alkan wrote: the Symphonie pour piano seul, consisting of four consecutive pieces from the set of 12 minor-key ones that Alkan produced as his Op. 39. This work has been recorded by many pianists over the years, including Lewenthal in his pioneering 1965 performance, but every performer seems to find something different in the music and to create new ways of expressing its many technical and emotional complexities. Viner ensures that the work has genuine symphonic proportions, bringing out its moods and its structural elements while never losing sight of its emotional intensity. The passion of the first movement, the sorrow of the second, the strangely haunted third, and the headlong and sparkling finale add up, in and under Viner’s hands, to a work of immense power and true symphonic proportions. Viner’s attentiveness to rhythmic detail and contrasts of speed is particularly stirring: he seems to take all of Alkan’s nearly insurmountable complexities as mere building blocks of some truly amazing communicative effects – a most impressive achievement. The other works on this CD are interesting in their own ways, although none is as grand (or grandiose) as the Symphonie. Two pieces here receive their first recordings: the second and third of the Trois Marches quasi da cavalleria. The first is the most interesting of this three-march set, which probably explains the neglect of the others, but Viner is so savvy an Alkan interpreter that he successfully negotiates the rather mundane second march and the wry and not-very-march-like third. The other two marches on the disc are larger than any of the Op. 37 ones, with the Marche funèbre being distinctly eerier and the Marche triomphale rather overdone in its determined positivity and swagger. As for the non-march short pieces on this disc, the very short Alleluia is filled with religious fervor and optimism; the comparatively well-known Super flumina Babylonis closely tracks the verses of Psalm 137, from deep mourning to a determination to do extreme violence to the captors of the exiles from Jerusalem; and the less-known Salut, cendre du pauvre! Paraphrase (whose title translates as “Hail, ashes of the poor!”) is a suitably melancholic elegy with overtones of respect for the ideals of the French Revolution. What Viner does remarkably well in all these works, the lesser as well as the greater, is to think through the emotional impact that Alkan was seeking and the means he used to try to obtain it – then utilizing those means and his own substantial technical prowess to delve into Alkan’s worldview as expressed in every one of these pieces, producing performances of rare quality and substantial insight. Alkan could scarcely have a better champion of his complete piano music than Viner, who shows every sign of continuing this series of discs at the same very high level as the first four.

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