Almost all of Charles-Valentin Alkan's music lay in obscurity until the past few decades. Raymond Lewenthal's astonishing recording in the 1960s provided my first exposure to Alkan's music and I've been collecting recordings of his works faithfully ever since. As far as I'm concerned -- and I know there are those who disagree -- his music is the equal of, and often surpasses, that of Liszt. They are generally extremely virtuosic and although some of them have their share of Lisztian bombast, they are unfailingly at least interesting and more often exciting and lovely.
Alkan wrote five 'Recueils de Chants' ('Collections of Songs'). Written from 1857 to 1872, they were inspired by the first set of six 'Songs Without Words', Op. 19b, published in 1832 by Mendelssohn. Each of the 'Recueils' contains six pieces whose key signatures are precisely those of the Mendelssohn set: E major; A Minor; A Major; A Major; F Sharp Minor; G Minor. Further, each of the Alkan pieces imitates, at least faintly, the general outline of its Mendelssohnian model. But there the similarity ends, as no one could ever mistake one of Alkan's pieces for any of Mendelssohn's. Alkan's style is uniquely his own and instantly recognizable to those familiar with any of his other music. For those of you who are coming to his music for the first time I'd suggest you listen to the clips of some of his music at the mp3 site for this disc: Alkan: Complete Recueils de Chants, Vol. 1 or for one of the other Alkan discs here at Amazon, e.g. Alkan: 12 Etudes Dans Les Tons Mineurs, Op. 35: Concerto.
There have been recordings of some of this music before -- most notably the astounding performance of the Third Recueil by Marc-André Hamelin: Alkan: Concerto for solo piano; Troisième recueil de chants -- but Stephanie McCallum, an Australian pianist, certainly holds her own. Further, it will be nice to have all five Recueils in a two-disc set when the second set comes out from Toccata Classics, as it is slated to do.
The final piece on this disc is the never-before-recorded 'Une Fusée, Introduction et Impromptu', Op. 55. As the excellent notes by McCallum indicate, 'fusée' can have several meanings, the most common modern meaning of which is 'rocket', but it is more likely to have been inspired by a nineteenth-century meaning having to do with spinning or weaving. The music itself, after a slow introduction, is probably meant to be suggestive of either the circular motion of a spinning wheel or the back and forth motion of a loom's shuttle. It is a whirling, virtuosic piece brought to life by McCallum.
One waits eagerly for a companion second volume of Recueils.