Jeremy Lee writes
I wanted to use the word “adequate” to describe this disc in my title, but seeing that my review of Alsop’s Brahms Requiem was also “adequate”, I had to resort to a less flattering term “acceptable”. Whatever it is–adequate, acceptable–you can tell that this release certainly does not sweep the board. Given the tremendous fire and exhilaration he provided as an accompanist to Emmanuelle Bertrand in their Alkan/Liszt cello recital (review here), I understandably had great hopes for this new disc, but it seems that when Bertrand is left to his own devices as in here, he becomes pretty lacklustre. (“Disappointing” would have been a better word, but I could not find a suitable synonym that started with “a” to make my title alliterate.)
Whatever. Let me start with the raison d’etre of this recital, one of Alkan’s pieces de resistance, the Grande Sonata Op. 33 “Les Quatre Âges”. It starts with the scherzo-like 20 ans, and here Amoyel’s refusal to use much pedal for clarity is traded for some uneven runs and unsupportive bass. The lovely, pop-song trio is way too saccharine and labored under Amoyel (a similar problem afflicts Alan Weiss’s performance on Brilliant Classics), while the final perorations, possibly the only place in the sonata in which the pianist can overtly display his technical facility, goes for naught. Then there’s the profound and profoundly complex 30 ans, the focal point of the whole work, a massive sonata form interrupted by a sprawling 8-part fugue, depicting Faustian struggle. Amoyel underplays the struggle, and while I laud his refusal to bang all the bass notes (as I do whenever I play this piece), he just seems too restrained dynamically to convey the movement’s monumental emotional canvas. He also sounds too cautious at times: note the gingerly leaps at the start of the development, or the similarly timid recapitulation (a whirlwind of sound under Hamelin). While the fugue is very beautifully played and intricately voiced, the ensuing material is simply not devastating enough to portray Faust’s Phyrric victory over the devil (or vice versa, no matter how you interpret it). But self-effacing it certainly is not: Amoyel tends to make little points and inflections here and there that may be musical in conception but in practice obstructs the flow of the music. Moreover, his leisurely tempo (at 15:30) fails to thread the large structure into a cohesive whole, making it sound as if it were unrelated, segregated bits and pieces.
With 40 ans we have, at last, an unreservedly splendid performance, which is detailed, songful and extremely affable–I could imagine myself retire in this sort of playing. This amicable piece, after all, showcases Amoyel’s strengths in his pearly touch, intimate sonority and pretty bel canto playing. But with 50 ans we are immediately entailed in hopelessness and bleakness, and while Amoyel paces this movement well, he doesn’t seem to enjoy reveling in such dark shadings. As a result it just sounds uninterested.
I suspect, judging by the programming of this disc and his playing of the more dramatic items in the Sonata, Amoyel wants to remind us more of Alkan’s intimate side than his dramatic, virtuosic side as is so often portrayed. The couplings are invariably slow and quiet pieces: Les Cloches, La Vision and Les Soupirs from the first book of Esquisses, Op. 63 has been selected (surely Alkan’s 48 character pieces has a much wider emotional range than what Amoyel has chosen!), a tenderly-played B Major Nocturne, Op. 22, and two relatively famous pieces, the Barcarolle in G minor, the last piece of the Troisième Recueil de Chants Op. 65, and the Mad Woman Prelude of Op. 31–the latter lacks the sense of brooding or plain madness that characterises Laurent Martin’s performance on Marco Polo.
In conclusion, then, this is a merely nice performance whose virtues are overshadowed by those of Marc-André Hamelin (of course) and Ronald Smith, not to mention the most recent Vincenzo Maltempo (whose Alkan cycle for Piano Classics Top Ear will review soon). The sound recording is clear but lacks bass and presence, while the packaging is beautiful (booklet notes are designed with exemplary thought and care) but hilarious (the rectangle that houses the title of the album, as it turns out, is a paper band encircling around the album like the rings of Saturn). Unfortunately I suppose such novelty will only turn to annoyance pretty soon, and at any rate the full price of this album puts it on the verge of affordability. And given the performance, it’s not a bargain at all.
- Album name: Alkan: Oeuvres pour piano
- Performers: Pascal Amoyel (piano)
- Label: La Dolce Volta LDV11
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 67:29