Top Ear

McCallum’s Uncompetitive Alkan

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Jeremy Lee writes

By releasing this album Stephanie McCallum is now not only the first woman to have recorded the whole Alkan Op. 39 cycle of minor key études, she is also the only person to have recorded both cycles of Alkan’s études, having recorded the Op. 35 set of major key études earlier on Tall Poppies.  Unfortunately, while McCallum is a thoughtful pianist as can be heard in the way easier Op. 35 études, her more workaday virtuosity fails her in this Op. 39 set.

The Op. 39 set is a daunting collection of pieces and add up to be around two hours long, and the enormous technical and physical demands placed on the performer in so many of the études take it way beyond the reach of the amateur pianist–and to some extent, beyond McCallum’s reach as well.  In many of the études she is heard to be struggling with her fingers as she slows down the basic tempo quite significantly when the going gets tough (c.f. Concerto’s first movement), and other passages such as the fortissimo chords that end the Symphonie’s last movement and Concerto’s first movement strike the listener as too underpowered.  Her filigree fingerwork in the Concerto’s last movement is very exquisite but the performance as a whole is outclassed by Marc-André Hamelin’s uncanny calmness, Jack Gibbons’ infinitely exciting spontaneity, or Ronald Smith’s poetry. Likewise her Symphonie is not bad but ultimately fails to excite like Gibbons or dramatize like Hamelin.  The sonics are fine but never as breathtaking as ASV’s or Hyperion’s.

McCallum’s Alkan Op. 39, then, is not bad at all, but she faces daunting competition with Gibbons’ superior recording on ASV, which is way more exciting, powerful, technically impressive, inexpensive and contains a selection of miniatures as filler (of which McCallum does not include), and which remains my first choice.  If you want the Symphonie and Concerto separately, Marc-André Hamelin’s traversals on Hyperion remains the way to go.  McCallum here just can’t match them.  Uncompetitive.


  • Album name:  Alkan: Douze études dans le tons mineurs, Op. 39
  • Label:  ABC Classics ABC4765335
  • Sonics:  DDD Stereo
  • Total playing time:  2:06:07
  • Year published:  2006

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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