Charles-valentin Alkan: Complete Recueils De Chants, Vol. 1

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ALKAN Recueil de Chants Nos. 1-3, Opp. 38 & 65. Une fusée: Introduction et Impromptu Stephanie McCallum (pn) TOCCATA 0157 (71:14)

The music of Alkan always brings delights. His whole output could be likened to a multifaceted jewel. Classical gestures, baroque purity and romantic excess are all melded into a magnificently bewildering whole. It would appear Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum is expertly equipped to explore this labyrinth. She is associate professor of piano at Sydney Conservatoire and, pertinently, has studied in England with the renowned Alkan expert Ronald Smith. She is no stranger to Alkan in the recording studio either: Her account of the op. 39 Etudes is available on ABC Classics, while the first recording of the 12 Etudes in all the Major Keys, op. 35, is on Tall Poppies. The booklet gives an absolutely full discography of her Alkan activities in the studio.

The volumes of the Recuil de Chants we have here (Volumes 4 and 5 are to follow on the second disc) paint a more subtle picture of Alkan than the Etudes (which latter, perhaps predictably, explore the more virtuosic). The five books of Recuil de Chants were composed between 1857 and 1872. Each is modeled on Mendelssohn’s book of Lieder ohne Worte , op. 19b; as such it is a tremendously fascinating example of one great composer taking wing from another great composer’s template.

The sheer variety of what to expect is laid bare in the first book. The first movement (which shares its opus number with the second book) begins with an Assez vivement , which features a fluid, mellifluous line that invokes Mendelssohn while touching tangentially on Chopin. McCallum delivers this with a lovely singing line before embarking on the Bachian purity of the next movement (“Sérénade”). Here, there is a Scarlattian tinge to the top line; the third movement is called “Choeur” but could easily have been called “La Chasse,” with all those galloping rhythms. A tissue-delicate “L’Offrande” (The Prayer) includes bell references, while the fifth moves far more into romantic territory (approaching, but not quite reaching, Scriabinesque vocabulary). The set ends with a simply gorgeous “Barcarolle,” Chopin with an occasional staccato edge.

The second book begins with a “Hymne,” which does exactly what it says on the tin. The second movement, Allegretto , is as Peter McCallum, the booklet annotator tells us, “an essay in obstinacy: ” one note (the submediant) remains in the alto voice throughout, regardless of what goes on around it. The effect is that of a slightly derailed Mendelssohn Spinning Song . As interesting is the fourth movement, a “Procession-Nocturne” with its walking (really, trudging) bass line. A restrained, but pure toccata-like Andantino appears before a final movement, marked Quasi da lontano and delivered by McCallum as exactly that.

The third book was published around 1866. It opens with a wonderfully fluent movement filled with long lines that seem to reference Schubert more than Mendelssohn. McCallum’s playing is exemplary, her projection of the melody just right, her realization of the piece’s aura simply beautiful. The language of the next movement, “Esprits follets,” points far further forward, although its inspiration is clearly from Mendelssohn. The world of drawing room vocal duets comes to the fore for “Canon” (it is some way more relaxed and intimate than its title might imply to some readers): McCallum shades the music’s wafting to and fro perfectly before introducing Alkan’s take on Schumann in the next movement Tempo giusto . The more intriguingly titled “Horace et Lydie” embarks on a syllabic setting of an ode by Horace (helpfully reproduced in the booklet). Alkan’s music is of remarkable expressive breadth, taking in Mendelssohn-fragile through to a heroic coda, all in the space of less than four minutes. Another flowing Barcarolle concludes, although to refer to it in just those terms is to do it a disservice. It is every inch the worthy partner of its fellow movements, exquisitely crafted and tender.

Finally, the world premiere recording of Une fusee: Introduction et Impromptu of 1859. The Introduction is in itself no mere preamble. Alkan sets up a rocking motion underpinned by (to my ears) slightly sinister bass interjections that is to return during the course of the Impromptu. The title probably refers to spinning and weaving, so some sort of reference to Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade is almost certainly not out of place. The Impromptu is a terrific flight of fantasy that surely only Alkan could have penned. McCallum exhibits fine virtuosity, not least in the somewhat Lisztian coda.

A remarkable disc; one that I for one will not forget in a long while. The generous annotations are just as expert as the playing.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: TOCC0157

  • UPC: 5060113441577

  • Label: Toccata Classics

  • Composer: Charles Valentin Alkan

  • Performer: Stephanie McCallum