ALKAN: Piano Concerto, Op. 39 / Concerti da Camera (Dmitry Feofanov/ Emil Niznansky/ Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra/ Robert Stankovsky) (Naxos: 8.553702)
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He was christened Charles-Valentin Morhange, but later dropped the Charles, and, together with his five brothers and sister, took the name Alkan. All became famous musicians, one of his brothers, Napolén, teaching at the Paris Conservatoire for over 50 years. The young Valentin was a sensation when he won the Premier Prize for piano at the Conservatoire at the incredible age of 11, and the same prize in composition at the age of 14. His fame travelled far, and he was already a virtuoso concert pianist by the age of 14. At the age of 20 he visited London to outrageous acclaim. He became a close friend of Chopin, and he had the musical world at his feet.
At the age of 25 something happened to him mentally, and he became increasingly introverted, rarely appearing on stage. He made a living as a private piano teacher, and when he did appear he invariably played the music of others.
He was never to hold an official appointment, and between 1844 and 1873 probably gave only 10 concerts. Then in 1880 the situation reversed and he was giving concerts and recitals at the rate of two per week until he died in 1888.
Most of his works were for piano, but he often seemed to lose interest once he had started work on them. We know he wrote a symphony which was subsequently lost, and he did write a little chamber music. Strangely for a concert pianist, it would appear that he did not compose at the keyboard, and therefore never wrote with the physical possibilities of the soloist in mind.
Though he had a thorough training in harmony, he seemed to disregard his teachings and resorted to his own particular brand of tonalism. The result was music which oscillated between the innocent and the technically impossible. For one who lived a long life he produced quite little, and, as previously stated, almost all for solo piano.
The chamber concertos for piano and orchestra come from his younger years, the second of which he transcribed for solo piano. The first dated 1831, in three linked sections, lasts for less than 15 minutes. The Second was composed two years later, again in three linked sections, but this time lasting only half the length of the First! The Third Concerto heard on this disc is, in fact, a reconstruction by Hugh Macdonald of an Andante which lasts for little over 5 minutes.
The most substantial work is the 'Concerto'. It was originally written for solo piano, and is heard here in a version for piano and orchestra. Originally it was part of 20 Studies for Solo Piano, an extraordinary work written in minor keys. Two extensive sections Alkan described as 'Concerto' and 'Symphony', the 'Concerto' being in three linked sections. The orchestral part was added by Karl Klindworth, a prominent conductor in Berlin, and Wagner's most admired arranger of his orchestral scores for solo piano. The Concerto in its final revision being first performed in 1902. It should be pointed out that while Alkan saw and obviously approved Klindworth's work, his changes were so dramatic that he greatly changed the original piano composition.
Though the disc is described as the 'Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra', there is more of the work of others than by the composer himself. Yet the result is a thrilling experience calling for a soloist of great virtuosity.
Dmitry Feofanov studied piano and conducting in Moscow before securing an exit visa to live in the United States. There he combines a busy career in law with a continuation of his concert appearances. He has become particularly noted as a champion of the neglected 19th century composers.
The Razumovsky Symphony has been created as an exclusive recording orchestra for the Naxos and Marco Polo labels. It draws on the finest musicians from the Slovak city of Bratislava. In reviewing a previous disc from the orchestra, Gramophone magazine commented on their \refinement of orchestral detail".
Robert Stankovsky was born in Bratislava in 1964, but decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a conductor. He came to the attention of the Marco Polo label when still in his early twenties and recorded symphonies by Rubinstein and Miaskovsky. Since then he has become a prolific concert and recording artist.
Made in the Concert Hall of Slovak Radio, Bratislava in December 1995.
Hyperion had a major success when they issued the two chamber concertos, and the disc won universal acclaim.
That disc, however, was at full price and was coupled with music of other composers. Here at budget price we have a complete disc of Alkan, superbly performed and recorded just two years ago.
Indeed it was Naxos's companion label, Marco Polo, that championed the music of Alkan with a series of solo piano issues.
Feofanov wishes to dedicate this release to the memory of Raymond Lewenthal who provided such an inspiration to all pianists fascinated by Alkan.