Top Ear

A Rousing Conclusion to Maltempo’s Alkan Cycle

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Jeremy Lee writes

So far Vincenzo Maltempo’s Alkan cycle (that is, a complete survey of the composer’s magnum opus, 12 Etudes in all the minor keys Op. 39) has stacked up extremely well and revealed Maltempo as a thrillingly resourceful musician with formidable technique and intelligence.  The present release ends this monumental cycle on a high note.

Recorded in June 2013 by the same people and in the same venue as the previous two releases, the sound on this recording has considerably improved on the previous instalment’s diffuseness and hardness, matching if not surpassing Vol. 1’s detailed and truthful sound.  Maltempo, meanwhile, had planned to tour Japan (in November 2013) with a recital featuring the complete set of etudes at the time of writing the booklet notes (as usual, Maltempo pours his fascinating insight onto the page), and suffice it to say that the performance in Yokohama was a great success with the Japanese audience.  I was not present (of course), but if Maltempo maintained his form from the recording I no doubt would have been enthralled.

In my review of Vol. 1 I noted Maltempo’s extremely clear touch and luminous tone, and it is obvious that he carries these qualities to this recital.  Listeners familiar with other recordings by Hamelin, Gibbons, Smith and so on will marvel at just how much textural detail Maltempo reveals; you can practically discern each and every note no matter how dense the textures get.  Thus in the Concerto’s monumental first movement:  the shudders in the right hand in bar 587 and similar figures (if I got my bar numbers correct) are unusually audible; the rapid 4-3 polyrhythms that hold up the long-lined second theme in bar 637 could not be more clearly differentiated; and the minute voicings and ornamental filigree in the G sharp major recapitulation gleam with transparency.  Needless to say, the impossibly fast runs in the last movement and Comme le Vent are almost ticklishly even and clean.  Indeed, it’s pretty remarkable how sparsely Maltempo uses the pedal; even the fiendish chain of repeated notes in the coda of the Concerto’s first movement are done without it.  And even if he does, he uses it discerningly, carefully, so that the intricate textures of Alkan’s writing are not smudged.  This appears to be Maltempo’s primary virtue that he displays in his playing; I need not raise more examples, all you need to do is listen.

What I found slightly lacking, however, is the sense of sweep that many other recordings give.  Especially in the Concerto, it is truly a difficult thing to sustain the first movement’s half-hour-worth of structure and tension successfully, and in this instance I think Maltempo frequently loses the forest for the trees.  Yes, he reveals much detail, but he sometimes tries to accommodate all the notes so clearly and evenly that he has to slow down or end a phrase trailing in the air, which makes the music lose tension.  As a result his conception of the movement is more like a series of unrelated bits stuck together rather than a tightly-knit and cohesive symphonic argument under Hamelin and Gibbons.  Besides, it is fair to wish for a bit more dynamic range:  the fortissimo climaxes hardly register as climaxes (e.g. the moment of recapitulation) while the softer filigree begs for more delicacy and subtlety.  There are less of these sort of problems in the other movements as well as the rest of the shorter pieces but these flaws in the Concerto stick out pretty obviously, particularly when the playing is so fantastically insightful.  I suspect these problems would have been less telling had Maltempo used a Steinway with a more expansive and rich bass section and more rapid action.

Despite these problem, which really is a small one, I enjoyed Maltempo’s playing a lot throughout the whole cycle and I am convinced that anyone, be it a newbie or an experienced Alkanist, would find tremendous enjoyment in this disc and of course the previous instalments.  Consider it, too, a much-needed addition to the sparse Alkan discography, of which complete cycles of the minor key etudes are sorely lacking (Smith, Gibbons, McCallum and now Maltempo).

[Read our reviews of the other instalments here:  Vol. 1 Vol. 2]

Details

  • Album name:  Alkan:  Concerto for Piano Solo;  Comme Le Vent;  En Rhythme Molossique;  Scherzo Diabolico
  • Performers:  Vincenzo Maltempo (piano)
  • Label:  Piano Classics PCL0061
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:09:18
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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