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Paul Wee plays Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano at Wigmore Hall

Paul Wee plays Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano at Wigmore Hall
Paul Wee plays Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano at Wigmore Hall
Paul Wee plays Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano at Wigmore Hall

Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano, Op. 39 Nos. 8-10. Paul Wee (piano). Wigmore Hall, 1 pm, 15.06.2024

With his recordings for BIS, Paul Wee has gathered quite a following. He goes against current trends by manifesting as a real polymath: he is a fine concert pianist and also has attained high success within the legal profession.  his was her Wigmore debut.

But it is to the former that he inclined for this, a rare performance of Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano (the opus number, Op,. 39, Nos. 8-10, gives an idea of the scale the composer was aiming for; Op. 39 is actually Twelve Etudes in all the Minor Keys). A whole ‘concerto of some 50 minutes duration-plus, as part of a larger set is just remarkable. 

Wigmore  Hall was packed out, and the standing ovation at the end instantaneous and prolonged – and deserved. Performances of Alkan are rare indeed, despite the support of such giants as Ronald Smith (readers of my generation will remember his HMV LPs), John Ogdon (who recorded the present work for RCA) and of course Marc-André Hamelin. 

For all of the difficulties to come, it can be the smaller things that count. The way Wee’s opening chords were so preternaturally together set the stall for a performance of great integrity. In lesser hands, Alkan’s predilection for tremolos in a quasi-symphonic manner could become hackneyed; not with Wee, who saw it as very much part of Alkan’s expressive palette. It was interesting to see Wee use the third pedal to sustain a mid-range line while staccato chords surrounded it (and then to launch into cascades of arpeggios Liszt would have been proud of). The following section could potentially be labelled as ‘Chopinesque,’ with is cantabile lines in a quasi-operatic manner, were it not for Alkan’s delicious melodic tweaks. 

Here’s Wee’s BIS recording of the first movement: 

As a pianist, Wee is markedly undemonstrative. For all of the sparkling prestidigitation, massive chords, finely worked textures and awareness of Alkan’s use of gesture, Wee hardly moves at all. It all happens via the body and the fingers with a little help from those pedals. But most of all, he sustained the half-hour argument of the first movement to perfection.   

Paul Wee plays Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano at Wigmore Hall

The remaining two movements are briefer (about 12 and nine minutes respectively). A slow movement from Alkan is never going to be straightforward, and so it was. The Adagio begins with a melody that appeas to be a blossoming of that Chopinesque trait; with Wee, inner voices were alive; a shadow of a waltz started to haunt the scene before the piano imitates the ‘drums’ of a funeral march. Alkan deliberately writes very low, so the pitches meld into a subterranean noise, like a muffled bass drum. Wee’s superb sense of rhythms ensured the ongoing tread was as relentless as it was oppressive.  

Neither is the finale straightforward. This is marked ‘Allegretto alla barbaresca,’ and barbarous it certainly was at times. But against that are sparkling runs and trills of positively diabolic intent. This, perhaps, in dance terms is Alkan’s equivale of Ravel’s La valse. Alkan sets up wave after wave of pianistic super-virtuosity; Wee rode every wave with aplomb while maintaining tension and a sense of drama (and storytelling) throughout. There is, surely, a nod to the Liszt B-Minor at one point (the two works are only a few years apart). Here’s the finale:

Unbelievably, Wee provided an encore, the slow movement of the Henselt Piano Concerto, around eight minutes of bliss, a divine melody accorded the most delicious filigree. Remarkable. 

Here’s the Henselt, but with orchestra in Wee’s Hyperion recording:

Here’s the Hamelin on Hyperion, first movement:

… here’s John Ogdon, one of the greatest of all pianists, taken from wonderful RCA box set of the recordings Ogdon made for that company:

… and here is a transfer of Ronald Smith’s 1970 LP first movement:

Here’s a link for Amazon purchase. The Ogden is available here (but it’s not cheap: £70!), the Hamelin here, and Wee’s Henselt/Bronsart Concertos on BIS here. There was a rather nice twofer on EMI of Ronald Smith, which seems rather difficult to locate …

Alkan: 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys, Op. 39 (Excerpts) | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to Alkan: 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys, Op. 39 (Excerpts) by Paul Wee, Charles Valentin Alkan. Stream now on IDAGIO
Paul Wee plays Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano at Wigmore Hall

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