Top Ear

Maltempo’s Alkan Cycle, Vol. 1

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Jeremy Lee writes

Maybe it’s a bit late to review this album, given my excitement when I announced the news of this album’s release two years ago on this blog.  But better late than never!  Maltempo has, by now, completed his Alkan Op. 39 cycle–the fourth so far, after Smith, McCallum and Gibbons–and Vol. 2 has been reviewed glowingly by Leonard here.  The start of the cycle presents us with the Symphonie, Nos. 4-7 of Op. 39, as well as the Grande Sonate Op. 33, and also gives us the “hands reunited” etude, No. 3 of Op. 76.

The disc opens with crystal-clear fingerwork in the hard-to-negotiate filigree of the first movement “20 ans” of the Grande Sonate, thanks to sparse use of pedal, which leads into some delightfully ticklish playing in the high registers, like glittering shimmers on the sea.  He is also unusually attentive to minute details, such as the offbeat accents in the left hand and some strongly brought-out countermelodies.  Yet his focus on detail and articulation is not at the expense of spirit:  Maltempo conveys the music’s youthful carefreeness very well, and his shaping of the trio’s pop-like melody despite sparse pedalling is exquisite.  It all ends in a sweep of pedal-less octaves that are executed with the evenness of a machine gun.  The momentous 30 ans benefits from Maltempo’s attention to detail too, but it is in this kind of situations where I start to feel that he is losing the forest for the trees:  in terms of struggle and weight he pales behind the momentous Hamelin recording for Hyperion (which introduced me to the work).  On the other hand, that knotty 8-part fugue has never been better voiced in my opinion; Maltempo’s carefully-controlled pedaling and careful tone-shading of every voice is like an x-ray of the thick contrapuntal textures.  Both 40 ans and 50 ans start to bear greater similarities with Hamelin’s interpretation:  essentially a laid-back, relaxed and beautifully sung performance in 40 ans, and a terse, grim contemplation of death in 50 ans.

Complete recordings of the Symphonie are more common, which means we can compare and contrast how Maltempo’s interpretation is different from versions such as Gibbons, Smith, Lewenthal and (inevitably) Hamelin.  The monumental first movement is given clarity and detail as usual, yet unlike in his performance of 30 ans Maltempo seems a bit more heavy-handed this time round, and he grants the final, terrifying climax enough gravitas and impact to make it a truly cathartic experience.  The Funeral March is as carefully voiced and grim as any, while the grotesque Minuet is lively and sports a particularly flowing Trio (despite some casually-interpreted dynamics and less-than-neat chords in the Minuet proper, c.f. Hamelin and Gibbons).  The Finale is where we can hear some substantial differences between the interpretations:  Jack Gibbons goes for broke, Lewenthal too, Hamelin keeps his cool while tossing off the notes with his inhuman technique, and Smith sort of trundles along.  Maltempo’s tempo aren’t as swift as Gibbons, Lewenthal or Hamelin, but his advantage is, like 20 ans, squeaky-clean runs and a brilliant, glowing tone.  Maltempo seems to be very proud of his fingerwork, for he ends his recital with the perpetual-motion Op. 76 No. 3 that astonishes in the sheer amount of notes that the listener can hear.

Overall, then, Maltempo’s way with Alkan is bent towards clarity more than momentousness (though there’s no reason why we can’t have both), and the amount of detail he reveals in the music is positively refreshing.  His scrupulous attention to detail is also evident in his own booklet notes which are invariably knowledgeable and reveal almost every aspect of the compositions featured in this recital.  I should also point out that Maltempo uses a Yamaha instead of a usual Steinway, and its brighter tone-quality as well as the close yet truthful recorded sound surely contributes to the transparency that we can hear.

An extremely impressive release.  For many Hamelin will continue to be the performances against all others are measured, but Maltempo aptly proves that he is no mean contender.  I look forward to his final instalment of the series–the Concerto–with great expectations.


  • Album name:  Alkan:  Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Ages”;  Symphonie pour piano solo
  • Performers:  Vincenzo Maltempo (piano)
  • Label:  Piano Classics PCL0038
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:15:22


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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