Leonard Ip writes [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]
Charles-Valentin Alkan’s bicentenary just passed about a week ago, on the 30th of November. Even though Alkan was one of Chopin’s and Liszt’s best friends and most respected colleagues, to fans of this composer, the lack of any form of commotion from the major record labels on his anniversary is something they’ve all become accustomed to anyway. Thankfully, for his bicentenary, the piano-specialising label Piano Classics has some surprises in store: they’ve offered us two new Alkan recordings by two young Italian pianists Vincenzo Maltempo and Alessandro Deljavan respectively, both recorded in 2012.
The not-even-30-yet Vincenzo Maltempo completed his musical studies under Salvatore Orlando (disciple of maestro Sergio Fiorention) and graduated with highest honors from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. He recorded his first Alkan disc with Piano Classics in 2012 (PCL 0038), lectured on the composer’s art in various musical establishments, and planned to publish an Alkan biography. Maltempo wrote the booklet notes for this album (PCL 0056) and, judging by the depth and detail of his writing, I’d describe him as a modern Ronald Smith in terms of knowledge and advocacy of the composer. Most importantly, Maltempo’s playing very often surpasses – technically, at the very least – Smith’s. Maltempo’s first album contained the more popular Grande Sonate and Symphony for Solo Piano; the present album includes one of Alkan’s most famous works, Le Festin d’Esope, while the rest is devoted to his more obscure works: three small pieces, Op. 15 (which are anything but small), the Overture from the Etudes in 12 Minor Keys Op. 39, and the late Sonatine Op. 61 (which is also disproportionately enormous for a work of the title).
Le Festin is probably the most recorded Alkan work, and Maltempo’s performance is surely one of the most outstanding. His nimble touch, phrasing and emotion range quite aptly portrays Alkan’s slightly shadowy humor, and the proportioning he allocates to the 25 variations is spot-on. What is more, his clean technique and near-faultless accuracy is only second to Hamelin (Hyperion) and surpasses versions that are just as distinguished in terms of interpretation and musical insightfulness, such as Gibbons (ASV) and Lewenthal (RCA). The three Op. 15 pieces (of which total length actually exceeds 30 minutes) is called “Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique”, and is one of the 19th century’s most daring works in terms of structure, harmony and pianistic writing. Maltempo delivers a coherent, persuasive interpretation with his consummate technique and balanced style. One might say it lacks the raw passion that Hamelin (Hyperion) brings, but otherwise it’s still an excellent alternative (and anyway there aren’t many other recordings to choose from). The “Overture” is also very well done, but overall it is cast underneath the fire of Gibbons (ASV) and the pure elegance of Smith (EMI).
Alessandro Deljavan is also in his 20s, and like Alkan, he was a child prodigy, giving his concert début at the age of 3. He graduated in piano at the age of 16 at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and won many awards in various international competitions. He has recorded for a variety of labels and is now the professor of piano at the E.R. Duni Conservatory in Matera. This Alkan album (PCS 0051) is his first album for Piano Classics and contains the Trois Grandes Études Op. 76, the Sonatine Op. 61 (also included in Maltempo’s album) and the rarely recorded Deux petites pieces, Op. 60 (Piano Classics’ claim that it is a prèmiere recording is erroneous).
The Op. 76 set of etudes is Alkan’s lengthiest and most ambitious work after Op. 39: the first etude, a fantasy, is for the left hand only, the second, an introduction, variations and finale, is meant for solo right hand, and the third moto perpetuo is a tour-de-force for both hands playing in unison two octaves apart. While the length of the final etude is comparatively short, the first two etudes are so complex that they can rightly be considered pianistic tone poems (the second etude reaches north of 22 minutes!). Of the existing recordings, Hamelin can safely be considered the winner with his inhuman technique and plenty of drama, but Deljavan is no slouch: his exquisite, expressive performance rivals Hamelin’s, and his luminous tone makes the first two etudes simply enticing. Like Maltempo, Deljavan sports a very precise technique, and as such he conquers the more difficult passages with admirable aplomb, but Deljavan’s is the more imaginative of the two. Take the middle section of the third etude as a case in point, the section where the expressive melody is superimposed over broken arpeggios in 10ths: while Hamelin pedals through it all, Deljavan chooses to use it sparsely and expose the sparkling top notes in a sharp, staccato fashion, a laudable and very musical performance decision.
The Op. 60 Deux petites pièces (this time really “petite”), like art songs, emphasize much on melody, and Deljavan’s sensitive expressivity comes to the fore again. These two pieces are not only simple to play, their melodies are so simple and yet so infectious, and their musical content yields nothing to those smaller works of Chopin and Liszt, under Deljavan’s supreme pianism, one has to wonder why so few pianists play Alkan!
I’ve saved the Sonatine for last so that comparisons can be made between Deljavan’s and Maltempo’s interpretations. The Sonatine is one of Alkan’s late masterpieces, and while the musical language is quite concise, the technique required to toss the piece off is considerable. Deljavan’s reading is full of energy and character, and while Maltempo’s reading is technically just as accomplished, Deljavan outshines him in his more expressive ways with details, such as the contrasts in articulation in the second movement.
The sonics of both releases are pretty fine, clear, spacious and impactful. The reverberation may be slightly muddy in Maltempo’s case but that only affects the most rapid runs. One peculiar habit of Maltempo’s is his use of a Yamaha piano (a CF III SA Concert Grand Piano), and it’s clearly discernible by the shrill-sounding high registers and the (disappointingly) flat bass-notes. While this doesn’t affect Maltempo’s quality music-making, as a piano fan I still hope he uses a Steinway (though every listener has his or her own preference), because compared to Deljavan’s Steinway D, it’s immediately apparent that the Steinway sports sharper textures and a more lustrous, luminous tone color. Unfortunately Deljavan’s piano is recorded in such a way that it sounds more clangorous and metallic than usual. So on the whole these two releases are not sonically outstanding (a small detail that doesn’t detract from the performance nevertheless)–Hamelin and Gibbons are recorded in far truer and more comfortable sound. But please don’t let that put you off.
Alkan’s music has never been considered popular, but since the 1940s, a small group of enthusiasts (including pianists, composers and music-lovers) have worked tirelessly to rescue this genius’ works from obscurity and allowing them to receive the attention they deserve. From the pioneering Egon Petri to Ronald Smith and Raymond Lewenthal, to today’s exponents such as Marc-André Hamelin and Jack Gibbons, those people who play and record Alkan are bursting with talent. Adding Maltempo and Deljavan to this roster is to the benefit of Alkan as well as music-lovers around the globe. I truly look forward to these two pianist’s further Alkan recordings (please, do the Concerto for Solo Piano!).
Footnote by Jeremy Lee: Leonard’s wish has come true–Maltempo has recorded the Concerto for Solo Piano for Piano Classics, which marks the end of Maltempo’s Op. 39 recorded survey. (December 2013)
- Album name: Alkan: Le Festin d’Ésope; 3 Morceaux, Op. 15; Ouverture; Sonatine
- Performers: Vincenzo Maltempo (piano)
- Label: Piano Classics PCL0056
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 74:35
- Album name: Alkan: 3 Grandes Études, Op. 76; Sonatine; 2 Pièces, Op. 60
- Performers: Alessandro Deljavan (piano)
- Label: Piano Classics PCL0051
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 76:18