Jeremy Lee writes
Alkan was a master of form, and the way he manipulates Classical forms such as the sonata form and variation in such a magical way deserves to be learnt from. His Cello Sonata is exactly that: perfect proportions, subtle modulations and astonishingly beautiful melodies come together to create a work of such high quality it is more than comparable to the cello sonatas of Chopin, Brahms and Grieg. However, Alkan’s unjust neglect and the work’s extreme difficulty has resulted in much less recordings and performances others have received. I have had the fortune to hear four recordings of the Alkan Cello Sonata, including the subject of my review today, and I can safely say that among all of them, this one is my favorite of them all.
From the first few seconds of the piece Emmanuelle Bertrand’s lush, warm and noble cello tone is manifest, and her attention to the phrasing of the ebbing first few bars and the rich soar to the high G sharp is clearly a great musical mind at work. She coaxes the beautiful melodies on the way, at no point neglecting the flow and giving in to mere sentimentality, and in the more passionate melodies her Broadway-like singing tone is a model not only for other cellists, but for singers as well. She plays the charming second movement with real sensitivity and gives us a deeply reflective Adagio. In the finale Alla Saltarella, where all hell breaks loose, she plays as if her hair was on fire, tackling the rapid runs and leaps with insane velocity; however, what struck me the most was that at no point of her heavy strokes and furious runs did her cello tone ever, ever turn grainy and harsh–the richness of the timbre was always preserved no matter what abuse her cello was subjected to. (All the other recordings I have heard–even the highly praised Gerhardt/Osborne on Hyperion–become slightly buzzy in those runs!) Pascal Amoyel (who studied with Cziffra) is the excellent piano accompanist here, providing a sense of urgency in the outer, faster movements, and immensely sympathetic in the central two. In addition, the voicings and dialogues between piano and cello are always natural and well-balanced. A few cello pieces by Liszt fill the disc, and although they are quite forgettable Bertrand and Amoyel play them very sensitively.
Harmonia Mundi’s sonics are by a small margin better than that of the Hyperion disc, including a more natural-sounding piano, and the cello and piano are extremely well balanced. When this recording was originally released in 2001 some critics complained about Bertrand’s heavy breathing noise–this re-release in 2008 has none of that, due possibly to some clever remastering by the guys at HM for the HM Gold series. A must-have for all cello lovers.
- Album name: Alkan: Sonate de Concert Op. 47; Liszt: La Lugubre Gondole and Works for cello and piano
- Performers: Emanuelle Bertrand (cello), Pascal Amoyel (piano)
- Label: Harmonia Mundi HMG 501758
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 65:59