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Grand Duo Concertante (Violin Sonata) op 21
Cello Sonata op 47
Trio in G minor op 30

Trio Alkan: Rainer Klaus (piano), Kolja Lessing (violin) and Bernhard Schwarz (cello)
Recorded June 1991
NAXOS 8.555352  [75.13]
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Though Charles Alkan (1813-1888) has had his champions (notably Ronald Smith and earlier in the twentieth century, Busoni), his music still remains largely unknown. As a piano virtuoso he was regarded as the equal of Liszt; and some have claimed that the technical demands of his many compositions for piano outstrip even those of Liszt himself. However, unlike Liszt, Alkan was reclusive by nature, not given to self-promotion and preferred to devote himself to composition rather than a career as a concert pianist. He composed no orchestral music, however, which alone would explain why his never became a household name and why he remains one of the most enigmatic figures in 19th-century music.

The three chamber works on this disc (which was first issued in 1992) represent Alkan's only departures from works for solo piano, though even here the piano dominates - at times, overwhelmingly. They certainly offer a clear insight into his musical world - effortless fluency, ferocious technical demands, unusually dissonant harmonies for their time and many surprises. But alongside the fireworks splutter many damp squibs. Take the Cello Sonata, for instance. I find it impossible to agree with the unnamed sleeve-writer who claims for it 'an important position, significant in the development of the form'. The second movement Siciliano is a very lightweight affair - no more than salon-music, and the third movement Adagio is just plain dull. But all is forgiven when we reach the Saltarello of the finale - a dazzling display of virtuosity, vitality and imagination.

The other two works are more rewarding. L'Enfer (the slow movement of the Violin Sonata) is highly unorthodox, both in its harmonic language and its alternating passages for piano and violin. The slow movement of the Trio in G minor also features unusual interplay between the instruments and is crowned by a searing climax of extraordinary intensity. A continuous stream of semiquavers makes for a very exciting finale.

Overall, on this evidence I would have to say that while Alkan's output was uneven in quality, he certainly commands respect; and I would recommend this disc to anyone curious to explore the music of a composer who is more written about than performed. The players take the technical demands in their stride (some impeccable, high-lying violin octaves in the violin sonata, for instance, and thunderous piano double octaves throughout). The recorded sound is generally fair.

Adrian Smith

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