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Review: Alkan, Symphony for Solo Piano & Concerto for Solo Piano, Paul Wee

Music review – Alkan, Symphony for Solo Piano, Concerto for Solo Piano / Paul Wee (piano) / BIS

The High Arts Review Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Chopin, Liszt, Franck, Busoni, Sorabji and Rubinstein were all great admirers of Charles-Valentin Alkan, the enigmatic composer who unexpectedly gave up fame and retreated from the public to study the Bible and the Talmud.

Everyone knows that Alkan’s piano pieces are notoriously difficult.  This can’t be any truer for the works present in this release: The Symphony for Solo Piano and the Concerto for Solo Piano, originating from 1857, when Alkan published his set of 12 Etudes, op. 39. From this set, Etudes 4-7 constitute the Symphony for Solo Piano, while Etudes 8-10 make up the Concerto for Solo Piano. The names might not be ideally apt, but they fit the bill nicely since the progressive tonality of each Etude eventually leads to the allegro-adagio-scherzo-allegro sonata form.

That both works are under-recorded makes sense: a pianist needs formidable technique and bravura to tackle them, let alone a great amount of super-human stamina. Hamelin has recorded both for Hyperion and so has Ronald Smith (one of Alkan’s greatest advocates) for EMI. Their recordings have set the standard.  As for the Symphony for Solo Piano Lewenthal’s account from the 60s still holds a special place for me, due to his more flexible approach and rubato.

But now comes Paul Wee who is not a professional pianist but an Australian barrister in London. Let me just say that his performances of both works are jaw-droppingly impressive. What sets this aside from the competition is the clarity and precision of Wee’s playing, combined with his ability for gradient colouring using a wide range of dynamics.  I haven’t encountered a fiercer account of the Allegretto alla Barbaresca in the Concerto, nor a more mysterious Funeral March in the Symphony. But if you want to sample a combination of his lyricism and virtuosity just listen to the Adagio second movement of the Concerto for Solo piano and you will be easily convinced.

If you haven’t heard Alkan’s music before there are a few excellent releases by Ronald Smith, Vincenzo Maltempo, Raymond Lewenthal, John Ogdon, Marc-Andre Hamelin and Jack Gibbons to name but a few. But Paul Wee’s account of both works needs to be heard. Captured in ideal sound, he makes a strong compelling case for Busoni’s claim that Alkan was one of the great five composers for the piano since Beethoven.

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