Some weeks back I caught the tail end of a piano recital on Radio 3. Something about the playing just sent a jolt through me and had me sitting bolt upright at the wheel of the car. Its sheer animal passion and the depth of resolution of its pianistic colours held me absolutely agog. At the end of the piece I was told I had been listening to Marc Andre Hamelin performing one of his own massively accomplished etudes. Arriving home, I looked the guy up on YouTube and soon found my admiration for his playing grow in leaps and bounds. But this was alongside a new admiration for the extraordinary music I happened to discover him playing, that of Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-88), the only pianist of his day to rival Liszt for technique, and a composer/pianist of criminally neglected genius. So I set about checking out the available disks of my new favourite pianist, playing the music of my new, most intriguing composer, this being the first.
The Concerto for Solo Piano is a monstrous behemoth, being three movements, 8 to 10, from his even more monumental 12 Etudes in the Minor Keys, Op.39 (1857). This is the most extraordinary piano music of the period known to me, being someone who is left cold by Liszt's Transcendental Etudes and still waiting to be overwhelmed by Chopin. There is a visceral, galvanic excitement to this music that hitherto I have only been able to find in my guilty defections into the wilder corners of jazz fusion in which I ever more occasionally indulge. At its wildest, whirling sheets of hemi-semi-demi-quavers collide and shatter like bursts of accelerated protons, releasing incandescent showers of exotic musical particles. The effort demanded from the performer by Alkan is absolutely Herculean. Only a pianist of Hamelin's prodigious facility, who I have seen described as a `super-virtuoso', and who seems to have entirely re-visioned what a piano is actually for, could hope to stay the course without showing signs of strain along the way. None of this is to suggest that all there is to this music is empty virtuosity. I know full well what it is like to be left cold by empty virtuosity. A big part of the music's excitement is the inevitability of its logic, which picks you up at the first bar and holds you in an iron grip through to completion, and the endless scope of its invention. The central slow movement, which is perhaps better described as a gentle movement, demonstrates the roundedness of Alkan's musical character.
The disc concludes with the rather more delicate, though no less fascinating set of seven Chants, Op.65. The very last of these is the breathtakingly charming Barcarolle, which to my ear matches anything I have yet heard in Chopin for transcendental beauty. This lovely, tender piece allows Hamelin to demonstrate a very different dimension of his virtuosity, that of enunciating different lines of counterpoint with subtle variations in pianistic colour.
Although one should never judge a disc by its cover the Kiss of the Vampire by Boleslas Biegas, with which this one is adorned, is quite superb and conveys with ghoulish precision what this ravishing music can do to one's head.