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Hyperion Records

CDA67624 - Alkan & Chopin: Cello Sonatas
Dead poet borne by centaur by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67624

Recording details: December 2007
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2008
Total duration: 62 minutes 16 seconds

DAILY TELEGRAPH CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK

'This new version [of the Alkan] must surely drag it centre-stage. It is a masterpiece: meaty, melodic, and, as with most of Alkan's music, extremely demanding to play … both performances from this outstanding partnership are out of the top drawer, fresh, spontaneous and beautifully recorded' (Gramophone)

'The Alkan emerges as a surprisingly strong work, made more so by the sterling advocacy of these fine players. Its four movements betray its composer's love of harmonic quirks and unexpected changes of direction alongside a freely lyrical spirit. Gerhardt draws a suitably Romantic sound from his rich-toned Matteus Gofriller cello, and he conveys a lithe ease of articulation and rhythm in the jaunty saltarella that concludes the work. In the more familiar Chopin, there is a palpable sense of a single, combined mind at work. Osborne's Chopin playing proves to be every bit as focused as his Messiaen or Tippett, and he and Gerhardt respond superlatively to the music's sensitivity and power' (The Daily Telegraph)

'One of the most gifted cellists on the international scene … Gerhardt is superb here, and he is fortunate to have Steven Osborne as his accompanist … a pianist of the first rank' (International Record Review)

'Osborne is simply a fantastic musician … simply astounding, binding his phrases in a way that eluded Barenboim, while providing just as much rhythmic acuity … Kenneth Hamilton has written an outstanding analysis of both works that I commend to your attention … Hyperion's sound quality is completely natural; one almost feels that there is no mechanical wall between performers and listener. This is an outstanding disc' (Fanfare, USA)

'Both sonatas benefit from Gerhardt's lovely, focused tone and Osborne's nimble fingerwork' (The Boston Globe, USA)

'Les tourbillons imaginés par Alkan sont bien rendus (notamment l'élan de la Saltarelle)' (Diapason, France)

Alkan & Chopin: Cello Sonatas
Allegro molto  [10'26]
Allegrettino  [7'10]
Adagio  [9'35]
Largo  [3'40]
Finale: Allegro  [5'43]

This recording of two great Romantic cello sonatas features the mercurial duo of cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Steven Osborne, both musicians of dazzling technical and interpretative abilities. Gerhardt is known for his passionate commitment to lesser-known nineteenth-century repertoire through his coruscating performances in Hyperion’s Romantic Cello Concerto series, and in this chamber disc he reaches an even higher level of thrilling intensity.

There are relatively few nineteenth-century cello sonatas. Even fewer have managed steadfastly to maintain a place in the current concert repertoire. Alkan’s splendid Sonata is a little-known work, but an immediately attractive one: ambitious, original, and replete with good tunes. Chopin’s Op 65 Sonata is a dense, complex work which baffled his contemporaries: it is revealed in this performance as a sophisticated example of two-part counterpoint, in which neither player consistently holds the centre-stage, and in which the interchange of voices is ever unpredictable.

Both works were written for the great French cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme who gave their premieres, with the composer at the piano in each case, in 1848 and 1857 respectively.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
There are relatively few ninteenth-century cello sonatas. Even fewer have managed steadfastly to maintain a place in our current concert repertoire. Between the well-known examples by Beethoven and Brahms, only Chopin’s Op 65 is heard fairly frequently, not just because of its intrinsic attractions, but because the composer’s name itself seems to be enough to guarantee performance. On the other hand, the Midsummer Night’s Dream magic of Mendelssohn’s signature has not proved potent enough to save his cello sonatas from oblivion, and the Sonata Op 47 of Charles-Valentin Alkan is no better known than its author—in other words, hardly at all. Yet Alkan’s splendid Sonata is perhaps the most immediately attractive of any of these—ambitious, original, and replete with good tunes. Both Chopin and Alkan succeeded in fostering an equal partnership between cello and piano, despite the virtuosity of their keyboard writing—something that even Rachmaninov never quite pulled off in his own Cello Sonata, which often sounds as if a migrant piano concerto is drowning out a lone cellist doodling away in the background.

There can be little doubt that it was the example of Chopin that inspired Alkan to write a Cello Sonata in the first place, for the latter’s compositional profile is strikingly similar to that of his slightly older contemporary. The two pianist–composers were good friends, at one point living only round the corner from each other in Paris. On Chopin’s premature death in 1849 many of his piano pupils crossed over to Alkan, who continued an increasingly reclusive existence until 1888. (The still widely believed story that Alkan—a devoted scholar of Judaism—was fatally felled by a falling bookcase as he reached for a copy of the Talmud, has itself been dealt the coup-de-grâce by more sober modern research.) The creative endeavours of both Chopin and Alkan were overwhelmingly centred on solo piano music, with the exception of a handful of chamber works. That these chamber works include a masterly Cello Sonata from each composer is partly owing to a third member of this Parisian musical coterie, Auguste-Joseph Franchomme (1808–1884), the dedicatee of Chopin’s Sonata on its publication in 1847, and its first performer (or to be pedantically precise, of the opening three movements) at a concert in the Salle Pleyel in 1848. Franchomme was notably also entrusted with the premiere of Alkan’s Sonata at the Salle Erard in April 1857, when the composer himself presided at the piano.

Franchomme was incontestably one of the finest French cellists of his generation. Shortly before the appearance of Chopin’s Op 65, he had become head professor of the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire, while years before he had collaborated with Chopin in the composition of a flashily superficial Duo for cello and piano on themes from Meyerbeer’s then famous opera Robert le diable. Such ‘composing by committee’—seemingly odd to us except in the field of popular song—was perfectly common at the time, and simply a practical acknowledgment that each composer was lord of their own domain. Although there has never been any suggestion that Franchomme actually wrote the cello part for Chopin’s Op 65 Sonata, he was surely consulted over details of the solo figuration, and the same is probably true for Alkan’s piece. Although the latter was published, for some as yet undiscovered reason, with a dedication to another Parisian cellist, James Odier, Alkan prepared a still extant personal manuscript copy for Franchomme (no doubt for use at the premiere) in which he thanks him heartily for his advice on the last movement.

It would be reasonable to assume that of these two cello sonatas, the Chopin would be the most immediately appealing. After all, Chopin’s reputation as one of the most popular of composers precedes even his more obscure works, while Alkan’s reputation—when he has one at all—is that of the perpetrator of enormously difficult, eccentric music, a tough if intermittently rewarding nut to crack. Here, however, initial assumptions turn out to be wrong, for Chopin’s Op 65 utterly puzzled his contemporaries, and remains far less easy of access than the composer’s earlier music. The Alkan, on the other hand, speaks out directly and boldly, despite its gargantuan technical difficulties and harmonic peculiarities. To understand why Chopin’s Sonata might appear so complex, we have to consider the period of its composition. In 1845–6, Chopin’s music was going through radical stylistic changes, which included increasing prevalence of contrapuntal textures, flexibility of metre and sophistication of harmony. All of these can be summed up for the non-professional by saying that together they constitute an attempt to cultivate an increasing density of musical argument and to replace the blatant with the subtle.

A good example is the slow third movement, Largo, of the Sonata. Here Chopin begins with an attractively soulful tune on the cello that could easily have come from one of his earlier nocturnes, immediately echoed by the piano. But what sounds initially like a straightforward interchange of melody between the instruments soon takes on a more complex character: the piano starts repeating different parts of the cello line, and then develops its own continuation; the cello sometimes accompanies, sometimes strides off on its own. It eventually becomes clear that instead of a routine Romantic melody divided between the instruments, we are dealing with a decidedly slick piece of two-part counterpoint, in which neither player consistently holds the centre-stage, and in which the interchange of voices is ever unpredictable.

It may well take repeated listening to follow exactly what Chopin is doing here and elsewhere, for the same fluidity of approach pervades the entire Sonata. Some of Chopin’s contemporaries were baffled by this, even fellow musicians. The notoriously conservative composer Ignaz Moscheles heard Chopin play through the piece soon after it was finished, and was downright puzzled by ‘passages which sound to me like someone preluding on the piano, the player knocking at the door of every key and clef to find if any melodious sounds are at home’. Alas for Moscheles, one of the reasons that more of Chopin’s music than his own is played today is that Chopin was constantly concerned to avoid compositional clichés, and to present us with something new. Sometimes the apparent ‘difficulty’ of music such as this can be the key to its survival.

Novelty permeates the whole Sonata. In the G minor first movement, the piano’s flourish before the entrance of the cello turns out not to be a standard throwaway introduction, but an important part of the subsequent structure. It returns several times later, like punctuation, to articulate the sections of this tightly argued sonata form—to tell us, so to speak, where we are in the movement. The Scherzo second movement begins with a typically trenchant, rhythmic theme, but quickly sidesteps the square repetitions often found in such pieces in favour of a much more plastic, and much less predictable, piling together of short, memorable motifs into longer phrases. By the time we reach the Allegro finale, in a slightly more compact sonata form than the first movement, it might come as a jolt in itself that Chopin concludes the whole work in the standard bravura fashion—with a turn to the brighter tonic major key and a scurrying, virtuoso coda. It takes quite a composer to make the expected seem so utterly unexpected.

If some members of Chopin’s audiences felt downright puzzled by his Cello Sonata, Alkan’s equivalent seems to have enjoyed a clamorous reception on the few occasions it had a public outing. A review of a Paris performance in 1875—with the composer again at the piano—raved about its ‘wealth of melody’ and tells us that the enthusiastic audience rewarded the Sonata with an ovation. For most of the twentieth century, the piece suffered almost inexplicable neglect, before it was once more thrust into audience awareness by the mini Alkan-revival that has been such a welcome feature of concert life in recent years. That Alkan’s E major Sonata is genuinely first-rate music will be apparent from the first notes of the passionately fervent Allegro molto that opens the work. Here a lyricism reminiscent of the contemporary French grand operas of Meyerbeer unfolds within a sonata form of Beethovenian power and élan. The striding new theme in a tenebrous C minor that is suddenly introduced in the central development section of the movement seems especially to recall the German master—or at least to be inspired by a related stroke in the first movement of his ‘Eroica’ Symphony—and to look forward to similar moments in Brahms.

One might be forgiven for wondering, after this commanding start, why Alkan’s works have a reputation for elusive eccentricity. All is revealed in the gentle second movement, where what begins as a simply lilting, even naive Siciliano tune gradually becomes infected with slightly twisted ‘wrong’ notes, and even more peculiarly biting harmonies. The music begins slowly to sound like a knowing satire on itself. By the close, it might seem that any naivety around is certainly not Alkan’s—a very postmodern feature indeed. Moscheles would no doubt have been aghast. Corrosive irony is fortunately completely absent from the rapt Adagio that follows, prefaced in the score by a quote from the Old Testament book of Micah: ‘As dew from the Lord, as a shower upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man …’. Alkan, a talented Hebraicist who made his own attempt to translate the entire Bible, offers this superscript in what is likely his own French version. The mystical music alternates a heartfelt melody in the lower register of the cello with shimmering passages of measured tremolando in the piano, eventually fading away in a distant pianissimo for both instruments. The rapture is rudely modified with the start of the manic Finale alla Saltarella, a furiously fast dance movement in sonata-rondo form. Such dances—the Saltarella and its sister the Tarantella—were something of a fad in France, their progenitor being the celebrated Tarantella in Auber’s opera La muette de Portici. Legend had it that those bitten by the Tarantula spider danced themselves to death in a frenzy, and Alkan’s splendidly energetic finale seems to take that as its starting point—just stopping short, one hopes, of a decisively fatal effect on either executants or audience.

Kenneth Hamilton © 2008

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