Charles-Valentin Alkan made his name as pianist in nineteenth-century Paris and seemed poised for a glittering career. But following a series of setbacks he withdrew into a life of relative seclusion, and as he receded from the public eye, so too did his music. It was never entirely forgotten, but it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Alkan’s works began to emerge from obscurity. To quote the liner notes by Paul Wee, ‘Alkan’s music exhibits a formidable grasp of form and structure, a strong command of melody, a high sense of drama and an unprecedented exploitation of the capabilities of the piano.’ Combined here on one disc –Read more possibly for the first time – are the Symphony and the Concerto for Solo Piano, two pinnacles of Alkan’s legacy. Unusually, the four movements of the Symphony and the three movements of the Concerto are included as seven etudes within Alkan’s Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineurs (Twelve studies in all the minor keys), in 1857 as his Op.?39. As to why Alkan composed these epic works and then hid them away in a set of etudes, Wee suggests that they are to be seen as ‘a celebration of the piano and its capabilities.’ Paul Wee is a barrister specialising in commercial law and appears regularly before courts and tribunals on behalf of clients including governments, corporations, financial institutions and individuals. Born in Australia, he began his piano studies at the age of four, continuing them in New York City at the Manhattan School of Music. Going on to study law at the University of Oxford, he attempts to balance his love for the piano alongside the demands of a busy international career in law.
The fourth through the seventh of Alkan’s Twelve Etudes in the Minor Keys Op. 39 comprise his Symphony for Solo Piano, while Etudes 8 through 10 represent the more daunting Concerto for Solo Piano. They require a pianist who possesses transcendental technical prowess, the stamina of a marathon runner, a sure command of large-scale structure, rhythmic élan, and a large portfolio of nuance and color. Paul Wee is precisely this pianist and more.
He creates the impression of tonal mass, yet his shaping of individual lines within thick textures imparts a welcome horizontal vantage point to the piano writing. In the Symphony’s second movement, for example, listen to Wee’s thoughtfully contoured interaction between the legato cantabile detached chords. His Presto finale zooms from the gate like a bat out of hell, yet the pianist’s staggeringly accurate fingers never even hint at potential derailment.
Likewise, Wee brings a playful audacity and airborne lilt to the Concerto’s aggressive quasi-bolero third movement that contrasts to the relatively suaver reserve of Marc-André Hamelin’s equally astonishing pianism. And Wee’s timbral contrasts in the long first movement bring out the music’s solo/tutti perspectives in true orchestral fashion with no more than ten fingers, although one could swear that an extra pair of hands sneaks in to help out every now and then.
Wee’s achievement is all the more unbelievable when you consider that he is not a professional pianist, but a highly successful international commercial London-based lawyer! One should mention, too, Wee’s superb booklet notes and BIS’ world-class production values. To call this disc an auspicious solo recording debut is an understatement. Better to describe it with a single word: WOW!
– ClassicsToday (Jed Distler)
What is almost incredible is that the soloist Paul Wee is not a professional pianist but a highly successful international commercial London lawyer. The precision of his attack, the clarity of the part-playing, the linear focus and structural grasp of each movement of the Symphony are quite thrilling to experience...The spontaneity and drive of his playing smash the sterile confines of the studio.