Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano enthusiasts curious about Charles-Valentin Alkan's loopy, visionary piano writing may want to start with the bite-sized Esquisses Op. 63, rather than face the mammoth Concerto for Solo Piano or Les Quartre Ages. After all, if you're new to jogging, you're not going to run a marathon first. The 49 Esquisses last from about 40 seconds to a little more than four minutes. Alkan composed these over a 15-year span and eventually partitioned them into four volumes, arranged according to key sequence. In an earlier review for Classicstoday.com, I described these pieces as off-center replicas of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Weber, with a pinch of the French clavicenists. And it's a stretch, I admit,
but I can't help but notice how the "Barcollete" foreshadows Paul McCartney's "Michelle".
In any event, Steven Osborne's Hyperion recording of the cycle thoroughly supercedes Laurent Martin's extremely capable Marco Polo version (reissued by Naxos). For one, the latter's harsh, tinny sonics don't begin to compete with Hyperion's luscious, full-bodied engineering. Secondly, Osborne often starts where Martin leaves off. He voices the second piece's staccatissimo runs and cross rhythms to utter perfection, pointing up the music's kinship with Berlioz's Queen Mab Scherzo. Note, too, the Fuguette's gorgeously graded dynamics and Frisson's shimmering rolled chords.
I can't imagine No. 37's treacherous broken octaves executed with equal calm and control, especially considering Osborne's speedy tempo. And the evenness and nonchalance with which he unravels the rapid, Schumannesque chords in No. 24 are enough to demote the rest of us mortal key pushers to Remedial Piano Playing 101! While Martin can toss off Alkan's ridiculously fast right-hand runs in Nos. 10, 14, 15, 16, 25, and 26, Osborne's firmer sonority and booming supportive bass lines take top honors. Put simply, this is one of the greatest Alkan discs ever made, and the annotations couldn't be more entertaining and informative. A triumph. [8/30/2003]
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less
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