The Harmonia Mundi label doesn't pay a lot of lip service to music outside of its core, Baroque and back-centered repertoire, although it has achieved some marvelous things in contemporary music and, very occasionally, the off-the-beaten-path romantic repertoire. Emmanuelle Bertrand Plays Alkan and Liszt belongs to this last category, featuring cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand and pianist Pascal Amoyel in cello and piano works of two composers not at all generally associated with chamber music, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Franz Liszt. This is such an intelligent combination; the two were friends and almost exact contemporaries, and both only composed a little music for the cello. The Sonate de concert is a relatively late work for Alkan and quite long for a cello sonata at 33 minutes. It is quite different from his piano music in that for the most part the elements of characterization so often found in his other music give way to an admiration for classical form and balance, though it is quite romantic in tone, almost like Schumann. TheAdagio is genuinely lovely and restrained, and as a whole this piece makes one wish that Alkan had spent a bit more time exploring chamber forms, although as it was he had to pay out of his own pocket to get this sonata published. The prestissimo Finale alla saltarella is stated in Alkan's usual terms.
However, the Liszt is the most stunning music here; all of Liszt's cello music, like Alkan's, comes from late in his active career. La Lugubre gondola exists in at least four distinct and separate piano versions and the cello and piano incarnation is not a rescoring of any of these, but yet another version, and it is extraordinary. All of Liszt's funeral gondola pieces, along with another called R.W. -- Venezia, were written from impressions of Richard Wagner's funeral procession in Venice, and there's something about this cello and piano version that is particularly moving and sounds in a distinctively European voice. Here, Bertrand is especially effective; while pulling off the bow-busting figurations in Alkan's saltarello was probably more difficult from the standpoint of pure playing, her careful and measured gradations of volume and innate sense of phrasing in La Lugubre gondola elevates this disc from the extraordinary to the essential. Much the same can be said of Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth and the two Élegies, and in all, Bertrand and Amoyel explore the spaces and draw palpable emotional strength from these late utterances of Liszt. If ever you're in the mood for a little Death in Venice and not necessarily from the movie, Emmanuelle Bertrand Plays Alkan and Liszt is the disc that you probably want; those who are devoted to romantic music for the cello will guard their copies jealously. This is the original 2001 issue of the disc; in 2008 it was re-released in Harmonia Mundi's HM Gold series.