Anyone familiar with the unfailing digits and seemingly inexhaustible energy of Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin would find the very prospect of his recording Charles-Valentin Alkan's giga-difficult Concerto for solo piano as a natural match of pianist and piece. This 50-minute mega-monstrosity -- the first movement alone lasts nearly a half an hour, and runs to more than 70 pages -- has been played only by pianists intrepid and skilled enough to make the voyage, the short list including Egon Petri, Alkan acolyte Ronald Smith, and John Ogdon, in one of his finest recorded outings. With Hamelin, this Hyperion release Alkan: Concerto for Solo Piano is all the more amazing as this is his second recorded traversal of the work, having done an earlier version for the Music & Arts label in 1993. What the 13-year interim has yielded is a deepening of Hamelin's interpretation, to the point where the rapid fire runs, leaping octaves, and thundering crescendos that characterize the work have become second nature and Hamelin is able to mainly concentrate on making Alkan's concerto sound like the glorious vision that it is. And that's not to mean the earlier recording was necessarily "bad," it's just that in the meantime he has achieved total independence from the technical challenge that Alkan's concerto represents.
This work is such a trip; it is a combination of symphony and concerto where all of the orchestral and solo parts are wound into just the two hands of the pianist. Apart from the first movement, it has a searing Adagio at its center and the Allegretto finale is marked alla barabaresca. As Brobdingnagian as the concerto is, however, Alkan never digresses; it is taut and completely strict in a formal sense even as it is likely the most expansive work for piano solo that the nineteenth century has to offer. Hamelin has mastered it, a feat so awesome that it almost makes one forget that the Hyperion disc also offers a late and lovely Alkan work as filler, the Third Book of the Recueil de Chants (1863), never before recorded in its entirety; Raymond Lewenthal recorded the Barcarolle alone on his groundbreaking RCA Victor LP Piano Music of Alkan in 1965. In a sense, Hyperion's Alkan: Concerto for solo piano illustrates how far we've come with Alkan in nearly five decades' time; from the enterprising, exploratory readings of Lewenthal in the 1960s to total command of Alkan's "impossible" pianist language in the 2000s. The one thing Alkan lacks is a place in the standard literature, and it doesn't appear as though he's ever going to have that, though if anyone can operate at the exalted level of advocacy that such a transition of thinking about Alkan would require, then Marc-André Hamelin is probably the man.