In February of 2013, pianist Stephanie McCallum released the first CD in a two-volume series surveying the five books of short pieces for solo piano that Charles-Valentin Alkan called “recueils de chants” (collections of songs). Her plan was to complete the project in time for the bicentennial celebration of Alkan’s birth on November 30, 1813. Sure enough, the second CD was released just in time for the occasion, on November 19. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I missed this event; but I still feel a need to call McCallum’s effort to attention.
The summary on the back cover of both albums describes these compositions as “miniature tone-poems which marry Classical constraint to virtuoso Romantic excess.” Bearing in mind that Alkan can be taken as a paragon of “Romantic excess” with outpourings of virtuosity that are almost as demanding on the listener as they are on the performer, I have to take issue with this summary. The fact is that most of these pieces are delightfully subdued. Yes, there are occasional flourishes; but they are hardly enough to count for flamboyant display. Furthermore, while Franz Liszt used his shorter pieces for adventurous explorations, some of which even depart from a tonal center, Alkan seems more interested in charming through soft speech, a rhetorical stance that is rarely (if ever) associated with Liszt.
McCallum clearly sees the expressive power of such understatement in her interpretation of these short pieces. It is hard to avoid comparing this genre with the one than Felix Mendelssohn called “songs without words.” However, while Mendelssohn seemed to approach the song as a formal structure through which he could express himself in an entirely instrumental manner, Alkan composed his songs in a way that almost encourages the listener to hear a vocalist at the back of his/her mind. Alkan’s entire collection is far shorter than Mendelssohn’s, but he makes up for reduced size with an engaging variety of highly individual and personalized approaches to an engaging rhetoric.