March 28, 2024


Cracking the Nazi Code: The Untold Story of Agent A12 and the Solving of the Holocaust Code. By Jason Bell. Pegasus Books. $29.95.

     The relentless ongoing preoccupation with the minutiae of World War II is surely connected with the uncertainties and complexities of modern life, geopolitics and warfare, with World War II thought of as the last “good war” by the Allies against the forces of pure evil, including Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese hegemonic imperialism – although fitting Stalin’s Soviet Union into a place in this pantheon is admittedly problematic. It is nevertheless a bit surprising that, nearly 80 years after that war’s end, authors of all sorts – not merely historians – continue to mine the conflict for what seems to be a never-ending supply of fascinating tidbits and untold stories. Such material actually exists with regard to any and every war: the grand stories of battles overshadow but do not eclipse the tales of purely human tragedy, triumph and turmoil with which all conflicts are pervaded. But perhaps because World War II is still within the memories of some who fought in the conflict, perhaps because record-keeping was far more advanced during that war than during World War I and previous conflicts – without the fraught sociopolitical gloss of later wars in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere – it is to World War II that historians and popular authors alike turn again and again for “inside stories” of what happened, why, and under whose aegis.

     Exactly where Jason Bell’s story of Winthrop Bell (no relation) fits in this exhumation is a bit difficult to say. Winthrop Bell was from New Brunswick, Canada, where Jason Bell teaches philosophy. Winthrop Bell was imprisoned in World War I at the University of Göttingen, where Jason Bell has been a Fulbright professor. And the men’s connections through academia and, specifically, philosophy pervade Cracking the Nazi Code, which may be the first “untold story of World War II” book to include extended discussions of philosophical topics: “Phenomenology’s distinctiveness comes from close attention to appearance as the route to the essential. …Another key feature of phenomenology is its attention to interpersonal relations. …Instead of the simple Cartesian cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), phenomenology described an ongoing relation among the cogito (I think), the cogitamus (we think), and the world. To understand nature, we need to compare notes among poets, natural scientists, and all honest observers who prefer truth to falsity and knowledge to ignorance.”

     That is a lot to swallow in a book that supposedly focuses on a long-unknown element of a war fought the better part of a century ago; and Cracking the Nazi Code is at times burdensome to read because of Jason Bell’s philosophical musings as well as his scholarly preoccupation with getting many, many details of many, many events (and the many, many people involved in them) just right, and his offhand academia-pervaded remarks: “He was perhaps snared by Chaucer’s waggish spirit without realizing the danger.”

     Nevertheless, when Jason Bell stays focused on Winthrop Bell’s role as a spy – Agent A12 in Britain’s MI6 – and his knowledge of Nazi Germany’s secret plans for the Final Solution that is now known as the Holocaust, Cracking the Nazi Code makes for engrossing, even enthralling reading. Indeed, when he wants not to become discursive but to encapsulate someone, Jason Bell can do so with aplomb, as in his description of Captain Mansfield Smith Cumming, known simply as C, the founder and head of MI6: “Cumming was a charming man who loved danger. He drove, boated, and flew at reckless speeds. He travelled on intelligence missions while wearing a disguise, with a sword hidden in a cane – just in case a promising source led him into a trap. It was, C proclaimed, ‘capital sport.’ …Cumming’s other notable calling card [was] his wooden leg (he lost the original in a high-speed car accident).”

     Jason Bell is equally good at limning Winthrop Bell’s large circles of friends, acquaintances, supporters and adversaries, among whom were Albert Einstein, Edith Stein (later St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Ralph Bell (Winthrop’s brother and Canada’s director-general for aircraft production), Robert Borden (prime minister of Canada), Lord Charles Hardinge (a strong believer in appeasing fascism and Nazism), and many others.

     Oddly, however, Winthrop Bell himself remains a touch elusive throughout Cracking the Nazi Code, even though Jason Bell effectively explains what information Winthrop Bell found, how he deciphered apparently innocuous comments and documents, how he tried with only partial success to warn governments of Nazi plans for widespread extermination of Jews and others, and how the officials who did take his warnings seriously made sure their countries were better prepared for the outbreak of hostilities and the extreme violence that World War II would bring. Winthrop Bell’s underlying motivations and personality are never analyzed in depth by Jason Bell, who is, after all, a philosopher rather than a psychologist. Perhaps the comparatively paltry personality analysis makes sense: there appears to have been a foundational modesty that led Winthrop Bell to shun the limelight – not only out of necessity, when providing secret intelligence to governments, but also when the war was won and he was offered honors of all sorts that he turned down.

     This exploration of Winthrop Bell’s story does include some fascinating intricacies, although the ultimate real-world importance of his discoveries about German plans and his disclosure of them to highly placed officials is difficult to judge: no one really knows to what extent Winthrop Bell’s research affected the course of World War II, for all that Jason Bell – whose footnotes reference everything from Aristotle to Joseph Conrad to his own academic publications – tries diligently to play up the significance of Winthrop Bell’s discoveries and communications. The reality is that no matter how many “untold stories” of the war are unearthed and told, there will always be more as long as the long-lasting fascination with World War II continues to be, well, long-lasting.


Bach/Mendelssohn: St. Matthew Passion. Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Christopher Jackson. Analekta. $26.99 (2 CDs).

Christopher Tyler Nickel: Requiem. Catherine Redding, soprano; Northwest Sinfonia and Choir conducted by Clyde Mitchell. AVIE. $19.99.

Frank La Rocca: Requiem for the Forgotten; Messe des Malades; Diffusa est gratia. Benedict XVI Choir & Orchestra conducted by Richard Sparks. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

     A rediscovery and reimagining of genuine importance, the new performing edition of Mendelssohn’s version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion offers listeners a ride in a time capsule to the 19th century’s rediscovery of a composer whose work is now considered so seminal to classical music that his neglect for some three-quarters of a century seems inconceivable. But already by the time of Bach’s death in 1750, music had moved onward from a contrapuntal focus to a homophonic one, and Johann Sebastian became known somewhat dismissively as “old Bach” while his sons, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, were deemed the Bach composers of importance. It is well-known that Felix Mendelssohn was largely responsible for rescuing “old Bach” from a place in academia (where his music continued to be studied) and bringing him once more to general audiences, never again to be relegated to obscurity. It was Mendelssohn’s teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), who communicated his highly positive feelings about Bach to his pupil and laid the groundwork for Mendelssohn to resurrect the St. Matthew Passion, which was performed in 1829 – for the first time since Bach’s death – in Mendelssohn’s “updating” and rearrangement. It is important to remember that historically informed performance is a new phenomenon, having come into its own only in the past half-century or so. Until then, it was common to “revive” older music by arranging it to be more palatable to contemporary audiences – Leopold Stokowski, for one, was a master of doing just that. The idea was that the old-fashioned musical elements would not appeal to or be understood by audiences accustomed to different sounds, arrangements and orchestrations, so for older music to survive in modern times (however those were defined), it needed to be clothed in modern garments. This is what Mendelssohn did with the St. Matthew Passion, cutting about a third of it, deleting numerous arias, dropping or rearranging recitatives, and reorchestrating the work to appeal to the audiences of his time. It was the Mendelssohn version of the St. Matthew Passion, not Bach’s original, that enthralled audiences in Berlin and Leipzig when Mendelssohn brought it to them – and that opened the door to a Bach revival that eventually led to historically informed performances that, in their turn, rendered Mendelssohn’s 19th-century approach obsolete. But that does not make Mendelssohn’s version ineffective, and for those willing to open their ears and time-travel to Mendelssohn’s era, the version of the St. Matthew Passion now available on Analekta is enormously engaging, highly meaningful, and an important chance to experience a landmark in musical history. Under Christopher Jackson, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem presents the Bach/Mendelssohn work in truly exemplary fashion: the pacing is everywhere excellent, the sounds of the arias and recitatives and choruses are beautifully balanced and emotionally evocative, and the overall effect is simply remarkable – this is not Bach but a kind of alternative-universe Bach possessing different but equally impressive musical communicative skills. It is easy to hear the reasons the St. Matthew Passion reignited interest in Bach’s music, because Mendelssohn so brilliantly ensured that the work’s many high points came through clearly and provided a coherent story line and cohesive musical experience. It is only because we are today familiar with Bach’s full-length original that we can say the truncated Mendelssohn version does not fully measure up to what the composer intended. And that is true but strangely irrelevant: Jackson and the Bach Choir of Bethlehem make so strong a case for the Mendelssohn version (which has in its turn been tweaked and modified for this world premiѐre recording by modern scholars working on various fragments that Mendelssohn never incorporated into the piece) that this St. Matthew Passion, for all its inauthenticity, deserves its own place in the repertoire. Its spiritual impact – and listeners in our secular age should not forget that that was intended to be its primary reason for being – is in its own way as great as that of Bach’s original; and its historical musical value is simply inestimable. The impressiveness of what Mendelssohn did with this work can scarcely be overstated, and the impressiveness of this performance of the Bach/Mendelssohn version makes a remarkably coherent case both for the Mendelssohn adaptation and for the original, underlying St. Matthew Passion as Bach originally conceived it.

     Some contemporary composers continue to find inspiration in sacred texts that are less-favored in modern society than they were in the past but that still have considerable meaning and importance for at least some audiences. The standard Latin text for the mass for the dead, Requiem, continues to inspire and soothe many contemporary churchgoers and sensitive composers of all sorts. The world première recording of the 2019 Requiem by Christopher Tyler Nickel (born 1978) shows just how much meaning a composer in the 21st century can find in the words and concepts of this mass focused on memory of the dead and finding peace with death itself. Nickel’s Requiem is for chamber orchestra, choir and solo soprano, and it has a haunting beauty from the very first notes of the opening Introit. Far from constructing a dour edifice or a dark-hued, gloomy musical cathedral, Nickel offers from the start a sense of peace, of music flowing with feelings and enabling the emotions of the bereaved to be expressed with sorrow but without despair. This is a very interesting approach that sustains well through the first four sections of the work, the third and fourth of which use the solo soprano to very fine effect. Surprisingly, the fifth section, the usually dramatic Dies Irae, here has an affecting gentleness that initially seems out of keeping with the words but that soon pulls listeners in through its subtleties of rhythm and determination not to yield to depressive feelings. Thanks to the delicacy of the chamber-orchestra scoring and Nickel’s determination never to engage in the hyper-dramatic, this Requiem carries with it an undercurrent of peace from start to end. It is not lacking in intensity – in the Confutatis, for instance; neither is it without sadness – in the Lacrimosa, for example. But again and again, when there are clouds, beauty breaks through them and brings shafts of light. Some of the vocal settings are reminiscent of plainchant, but the music’s rhythmic structure is often quite modern conceptually and is changeable enough to keeps listeners’ ears alert no matter what words are being sung. If there is a weakness in Nickel’s overall concept, it is one of lack of contrast: for instance, the Agnus Dei, which usually proffers peace that has previously been difficult to envision, is here just one of many calming portions of the work. The penultimate Responsory is more dissonant and rhythmically insistent than anything earlier – it sounds a bit like portions of Carmina Burana – but the concluding In Paradisum, which is the longest of the work’s 19 sections, quickly transports listeners, once again, to a realm where there can be little doubt that the dead have found the peace that passeth all understanding. Nickel’s Requiem is quite atypical of works of this type and, for that reason as well as for the sheer quality of the performance on this AVIE release, is well worth hearing – even by those who observe different religious traditions or none at all.

     A very different world première recording of a recently composed Requiem shows the many ways in which the Latin words and their meaning can be tailored to multiple circumstances. Requiem for the Forgotten (2020-2023) by Frank La Rocca (born 1951) is not much over half the length of Nickel’s Requiem and is a great deal more specific in its orientation: it is a work with sociopolitical underpinnings, intended to remember and draw attention to those who are displaced, forsaken and uncared for in this world. The scoring reinforces the intention: the work calls for choir with low strings, organ and harp. La Rocca’s opening, with its dark chords underpinning declamatory voices filled with intensity and seriousness, is far more traditional for a Requiem than is Nickel’s opening, and La Rocca continues in much the same vein in the following Kyrie. Then he moves directly into contemporary geopolitical matters with a section called Commemoration: A Hymn for Ukraine. La Rocca himself has Ukrainian ancestry, so this is certainly understandable, but it turns this Requiem into something more transitory and time-specific than is usually the case for a Requiem – and makes the whole work oddly less rather than more comforting. La Rocca is selective in the texts he sets – omitting the Dies Irae altogether, for example – and as a result sculpts this Requiem for specific time-bound purposes that give it less staying power than the quality of the music would otherwise provide for it. It is very beautifully performed by the Benedict XVI Choir & Orchestra under Richard Sparks, and its earnestness is never in doubt, but it is too much of an advocacy piece to provide the sort of comfort – to the forgotten or anyone else – that La Rocca clearly wishes to offer. A more-effective piece that also features the words to various sections of the traditional Requiem is La Rocca’s Messe des Malades (“Mass for the Sick”), inspired by the health struggles of the composer’s late sister, Carin. This 2022 work, for choir and organ, opens with the Kyrie, proceeds to Gloria and Alleluia, and eventually concludes with Agnus Dei as its sixth and final movement. This piece is gently expressive and uplifting in ways that La Rocca’s Requiem for the Forgotten is not, and the massed choral portions have a sincerity and warmth that give the words a sense of timelessness in keeping with their original intent. The organ contributions are mostly modest, so Messe des Malades comes across mostly as an a cappella work. And it is a highly affecting one in this performance, with the concluding Agnus Dei quite clearly providing respite from illness of the soul, even if not that of the body. The two extended works are separated on this Cappella Records CD by a setting of Diffusa est gratia, the words from Psalm 45 speaking of grace and God’s eternal blessing. This piece does not exactly connect the two longer ones, but it provides a broader concept of grace and goodness than is offered by either of the extended pieces, with their deliberately more-specific focuses. The first-rate performances here are as much a part of the attraction of this exceptionally fine-sounding disc as are La Rocca’s works themselves. This recording and that of Nickel’s Requiem both show clearly the ways in which old words, old notions and old sentiments can be effectively brought into our contemporary world, just as Mendelssohn found a highly convincing manner of bringing “old Bach” into a later time period whose values differed from those of the composer himself.


Grieg: Lyric Pieces (excerpts). Daniel Gortler, piano. Prospero. $23.

Music for Organ by Bach, Brahms, Franck, Widor, Louis Marchand, Michelangelo Rossi, and Joyce Jones. Barbara Bruns, organ. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Music for Viola by Lycia de Biase Bidart, Tigran Mansurian, Jeanne Behrend, Andrea Clearfield, Jessie Montgomery, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Olivier Toni, and Reena Esmali. AVS. $12.

     Although the use of multiple instruments opens up a wide range of sounds and colors with which composers can communicate their thoughts and feelings, there are times when a single instrument, sensitively used, can be every bit as effective as an ensemble. Small-scale works with a sense of intimacy are particularly congenial territory for single-instrument presentation, and Grieg’s 66 Lyric Pieces certainly fit that description. Composed during a 35-year period (1866-1901), these poetic miniatures were collected in 10 books: Opp. 12, 38, 43, 47, 54, 57, 62, 65, 68 and 71. The total set does have a circularity of sorts: Grieg reuses the theme of the opening Arietta, Op. 12, No. 1, in the concluding Remembrances, Op. 71, No. 7. But within the overall compilation of works, there is no particular structure: the pieces are musical thoughts of various kinds that sound as good independently as they do when heard as a group (or 10 groups). This circumstance has long opened the door to pianists who want to present a selection of these technically undemanding but emotionally captivating pieces – and Daniel Gortler does a particularly nice job in this regard in his recital on the Prospero label. Gortler offers 21 of the Lyric Pieces arranged simply for their individual and collective effect, not with any attempt to impose orderliness on them. Starting with Arietta, he proceeds to Berceuse, Op. 38, No. 1, to continue a similar mood, then changes impressions with March of the Trolls, Op. 54, No. 3 (here called “March of the Dwarfs” for some reason). As the recital continues, the individual works’ moods are quickly established, nicely summed up through Gortler’s sensitive playing, and then rapidly erased – so the feelings of the next piece in line can complement or contrast with the one just heard. Vanished Days, Op. 57, No. 1 is followed by Brooklet, Op. 62, No. 4; Solitary Traveller, Op. 43, No. 2; To the Spring, Op. 43, No. 6; Norwegian Dance, Op. 47, No. 4; At Your Feet, Op. 68, No. 3; Butterfly, Op. 43, No. 1; Melody, Op. 47, No. 3; Gade, Op. 57, No. 2; Album Leaf, Op. 47, No. 2; Ballad, Op. 65, No. 5; Summer’s Eve, Op. 71, No. 2; Little Bird, Op. 43, No. 4; Peasant’s Song, Op. 65, No. 2; Notturno, Op. 54, No. 4; At the Cradle, Op. 68, No. 5; Puck, Op. 71, No. 3; and finally Peace of the Woods, Op. 71, No. 4. In fact, it is the most peaceful and pleasantly lyrical of the Lyric Pieces in which Gortler excels – Album Leaf, Summer’s Eve, Notturno and Peace of the Woods are standouts. Taken as a whole, the 66 Lyric Pieces show an element of Grieg’s musical personality that remained largely unchanged for more than three decades. Gortler expertly communicates the stylistic similarities among the 21 pieces he selects, while at the same time bringing forth the small but telling ways in which Grieg differentiates each from all the others. The sensitivity with which Gortler uses the piano’s communicative potential makes this a disc full of warmth and beauty.

     Although activated by a keyboard, the organ is essentially a wind instrument, just as the piano is in the percussion family because its sound is produced by hammers striking strings. The organ, though, has so many sound worlds within its pipes and registrations that it can sound like a collection of instruments rather than a single one. Barbara Bruns brings out much of the organ’s coloristic potential on an MSR Classics CD that includes music ranging from the 17th century to the 21st – all of it fitting the instrument very well despite the many stylistic differences among the pieces. Unsurprisingly, the composer whose works take up the largest portion of the disc is Bach: Bruns plays the Chorale Prelude, BWV 662, “Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr" and the Prelude & Fugue in E flat, BWV 552, “St Anne,” with care and sensitivity. These are not back-to-back offerings, however: like Gortler’s CD, Bruns’ is a personal exploration, in her case one that spans centuries and moves back and forth through time to provide complementarity and contrast throughout the disc. Thus, the CD opens not with Bach but with the uplifting and strongly rhythmic Grand Dialogue by Louis Marchand (1669-1732). Then, after Bach’s Allein Gott, Bruns plays Toccata Settima by Michelangelo Rossi (c. 1602-1656), finding in this work a compelling mixture of uplift and virtuosity. Next Bruns offers a short piece by Brahms, who is scarcely thought of as a composer for the organ but whose very last compositions were for the instrument. It is one of those pieces offered here: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, Op. 122, No. 5. This is a work of elegance and simplicity with a pervasive churchlike feeling about it, even though Brahms was scarcely a traditionally religious person. Next on Bruns’ program is Franck’s Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18, less emotional than Brahms’ work but more substantial. After this comes the most-recent piece on the CD, Improvisation on "Aka Tonbo" (Red Dragonfly) by Joyce Jones (1933-2022). The piece somewhat surprisingly shares some of the sensibilities of that by Brahms, although its harmonies are considerably more modern (but scarcely avant-garde). Bruns then concludes her presentation with two excerpts from the organ symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor: the Andante from No. 9 and the Toccata from No. 5. The former is elegant and heartfelt, the latter ebullient and more propulsive than anything else on the disc – it is scarcely surprising that this movement is so well-known. The sincerity of feeling that Bruns communicates throughout the disc is matched by the sensitivity of her playing and her understanding of the various composers’ stylistic approaches. The back-and-forth of concepts and eras does somewhat undermine the overall effectiveness of this (+++) release, however, depriving it of the sort of emotive unity that Gortler elicits from his Grieg recital. Yet Bruns’ combination of lyricism and expressiveness will be highly attractive to listeners who enjoy hearing a mixture of more-familiar and less-known organ works.

     All the music is unfamiliar on a new recording from the American Viola Society – and the attraction here is only partly in the works themselves, the balance coming from the opportunity to hear multiple pieces focusing on the viola, which remains less often heard in solo works than the violin or cello. Four of the eight pieces on this (+++) CD are for solo viola, one is for viola duo, and three are for viola and piano – and the eight works are all played by different violists, giving audiences a chance to hear the similarities and differences among multiple performers’ styles. Unfortunately, the pieces themselves are not especially distinctive, even though all use the viola well and give performers plenty of chances to show their expressiveness as well as virtuosity. The four solo-viola works are the most interesting in the ways they explore the instrument’s capabilities. They are Rhapsody No. 1 by Jessie Montgomery (played by Alyssa Warcup), Fantasy for Solo Viola by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (played by Mary Moran), Improviso para Viola Solo by Olivier Toni (played by Rafael Videira), and Varsha (Rain) by Reena Esmail (played by Vijay Chalasani). Toni’s brief work, which lasts less than two minutes, is as expressive as the other three, which are three to four times as long. As for the other pieces here, Lachrymae by Tigran Mansurian offers some interesting two-viola elements (it is played by the Tallā Rouge Duo). The three viola-and-piano pieces are Viola do Céu by Lycia de Biase Bidart (played by Fabio Saggin and Mauren Frey), Lamentation for Viola and Piano by Jeanne Behrend (played by Jacob Adams and Paul Lee), and Convergence for Viola and Piano by Andrea Clearfield (played by Sheila Browne and Julie Nishimura). Bidart’s piece is the most warmly lyrical work on the CD and hews most closely to the traditional emotional evocativeness of the viola. At just over two minutes, it is the second-shortest work on the disc; Clearfield’s piece, which runs 12½ minutes, is the longest and in some ways the most self-consciously contemporary – more in the piano’s part than in the viola’s. Certainly there are recognizable stylistic differences among the composers – and recognizable performance differences among the violists. The disc as a whole, though, comes across as offering material of no great emotional range and no particularly compelling performance characteristics. On the other hand, all the pieces are well-made and thoughtful, and all the performances are nicely proportioned and fit the music well. This CD may not reach out to a wide audience, but it will likely have significant appeal to violists and those intrigued by contemporary approaches to music, especially solo music, for the instrument.

March 21, 2024


Charles-Valentin Alkan: Complete Piano Music, Volume 5—11 Pièces dans le Style Religieux et 1 transcription du “Messie” de Hændel, Op. 72; Etude from “Encyclopédie du Pianiste Compositeur”; Etude Alla-Barbaro. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $21.99.

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Complete Piano Music, Volume 6—Character Pieces & Grotesqueries: Petit conte; Pour Monsieur Gurkhaus; Jean qui pleure et Jean qui rit; Toccatina; Désir, fantaisie; Capriccio alla-soldatesca; Le tambour bat aux champs; Fantasticheria; Chapeau bas! 2da fantasticheria; Ma chère liberté et Ma chère servitude; Quasi-Caccia; Le chemin de fer; Trois petites fantaisies, Op. 41. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $21.99.

     The incredibly ambitious plan by Mark Viner and Piano Classics to record all the piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan is – well, “incredibly ambitious” pretty much sums it up. Nobody is even really sure how much piano music the famously reclusive, unbelievably talented, prodigiously skilled Alkan (1813-1888) wrote, given that some pieces are known to be lost while others have turned up seemingly out of nowhere. The Alkan piano series, originally planned to encompass 17 discs, is now projected to need 18, if not more.

     What is amazing is how many absolute gems the series includes; how many works that are far, far ahead of their time; how many pieces of prodigious difficulty and inordinate cleverness Alkan produced; and how Viner manages to surmount the technical demands of every single one of them – bringing out their underlying beauty and significance when they have any, simply allowing them to gleam and glitter and amaze when they have no particular musical importance but are among the finest display pieces ever written for the piano.

     The salient characteristics of both Alkan and Viner are very much in evidence in the fifth and sixth volumes of this monumental undertaking. The 11 Pièces dans le Style Religieux et 1 transcription du “Messie” de Hændel are typical of Alkan in several ways, not least in their title: Style Religieux is not explained and is not clear from the music itself (although Viner, in his highly knowledgeable and always-entertaining booklet notes, makes an effort to define the term), and the reason for ending the sequence with a transcription (which is not really a transcription but a rewriting and reimagining) of the Pastoral Symphony from Messiah is entirely unexplained except as a sort of capstone to the equally unexplained Style Religieux. The workings of Alkan’s mind are extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible, to fathom, the requirements of his piano music almost equally so. This particular 11-pieces-plus set is actually not among Alkan’s most innovative: every single element is well-thought-out, well-made and pianistically challenging, but only a few have the amazing peculiarities and quirkiness that define so much of this composer’s music. Among those, No. 4 has a decidedly strange and eerie minor-key middle section that sounds like a dark hypnotic fantasy, while No. 10 swaps themes and a pedal point between hands (a frequent Alkan characteristic) while tossing notes hither and thither and refusing to stick to a clearly defined key. Several other pieces in this set offer contrasting sections that are in some sense reconciled at the end – this is what Viner thinks represents Style Religieux – but it is the pianism rather than the pieces themselves that stays with listeners after the work ends.

     This fifth volume is one whose brief “fillers” turn out to be in many ways more interesting than its major work. Etude Alla-Barbaro is in a “barbaric” form that is best known from the Allegro barbaro contained within Alkan’s set of études in major keys, Op. 35. Alkan invented this “barbaro” concept and wrote several works using it – of which this specific one seems to have no right to exist. It is known from a single grainy photocopy taken from a lost original publication whose provenance is traceable even though the piece itself appears in no catalogue and has never been mentioned in any study of Alkan or his music. (Figuring out how to create a “complete” Alkan sequence really is enormously challenging.) The work calls out phrases, lurches ahead and back, and repeatedly sounds as if it is about to go out of control in its decidedly strange mixture of arpeggios, octaves, clarion calls, hunting rhythms and unexpected dissonances. It is most certainly a tour de force. Yet even this remarkable piece is overshadowed by the very early (1840) Etude from “Encyclopédie du Pianiste Compositeur,” here given its world première recording. It seems impossible for this piece even to exist, much less to be playable: extremely fast, bizarrely rhythmic, poundingly intense, packed with nonstop surprises and hammerings and scales and chords, this ultra-modern-sounding grotesquerie seems to have been dumped unceremoniously onto the keyboard from some sort of spacefaring race with a really twisted sense of humor. It is a genuine amazement, all the more so because it sounds today, in the 21st century, as if it is still ahead of its time.

     Speaking of grotesqueries, those make up almost the entirety of the sixth Viner/Alkan release, whose overall title of Character Pieces & Grotesqueries pretty well sums things up (abetted by an unusually well-chosen cover featuring highly individualized caricatures of people of all sorts, created in 1825 by Léopold Boilly). A couple of these little pieces are world première recordings: Pour Monsieur Gurkhaus, a looping-back-on-itself canon, and the fascinating Jean qui rit, the second of due fughe da camera. The first of these two pieces, Jean qui pleure, is in E minor and filled with rather studied pathos. But Jean qui rit is something else altogether: based on Fin ch’han dal vino from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it is recognizably fugal (until it lapses into something like a two-part invention near the end) but so packed with double trills, leaps around the keyboard, and tremendous hand stretches, that it seems unplayable. In fact, it was unplayable when Alkan wrote it in 1840, since it calls for a top C that did not exist on pianos until some 40 years later. It is a perfect example of just how far Alkan stretched compositional as well as performance boundaries.

     The rest of the pieces in this sixth sequence entry are all over the place, much as Alkan’s music itself tends to be (many of his effects involve placing the pianist’s hands at the upper and lower extremes of the keyboard simultaneously). Among the highlights of the CD is Capriccio alla-soldatesca, which imagines Napoleon returning from the dead to lead his skeletonized army from its graves for a final battle of vengeance – the work is macabre in the extreme. It was published as Op. 50 and is closely related to Op. 50bis, Le tambour bat aux champs, which also involves calls to arms of long-dead soldiers, accompanied by marchlike and dirgelike sections and repeated drumbeats – a scenario not far removed impressionistically from that of Mahler’s much later song Revelge (1899). This CD also includes several examples of paired pieces – a form often used by Alkan. The two Jean works are structured as a duality, as are the two labeled Ma chère liberté et Ma chère servitude, the first an ebullient piece in F-sharp and the second a dour and haunting one in A minor. There are also clear contrasts between the two items labeled Fantasticheria (“daydream” or “reverie”): the first is a short B minor rondo containing a chasing-its-tail canon (another Alkan characteristic, as in Pour Monsieur Gurkhaus); the much longer second is called “Hats off!” and mixes a sort-of-rondo with a sort-of-march.

     Alkan oddities crop up again and again among these works. For instance, the étude from 1844, Le chemin de fer, is nothing less than an extremely early musical portrayal of a railway journey – anticipating Eduard Strauss’ impressionistic Bahn frei polka by 25 years, and with greater attention paid to the perils of early passenger-train travel. And the Trois petites fantaisies of 1859, all of which are quite pleasurable to hear, conclude with a Presto packed with triplets, sustained chords, insistent thematic interruptions, flickering contrasts between the piano’s high and low registers, and keyboard leaps toward the end that cement Viner’s reputation (if such cementing is necessary) as an absolute master of some of the most difficult piano music ever written. There are sure to be more fireworks and many more amazements to come as this one-of-a-kind series marches, lurches, ambles and speeds along on an ever-fascinating journey of discovery.