Norman Lebrecht

How a City lawyer conquered the hardest piano work ever written

Norman Lebrecht is gobsmacked by Paul Wee’s recording of Alkan’s preposterous Symphony for Solo Piano

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Charles-Valentin Alkan played the piano faster than Liszt and louder than Chopin. The dying Pole left instructions that only Alkan was to be trusted with completing his unfinished Études. Alkan cited Liszt and George Sand as his referees in a bid to be made head of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but was rejected in what he perceived as an anti-Semitic snub.

After one last concert in 1849, Alkan locked himself in his apartment for 20-odd years, emerging finally at the dead of night in the Salle Érard to play for a word-of-mouth audience of professional pianists. He was found dead 15 years later on 29 March 1888, supposedly crushed by a falling bookcase from which he was extracting a top-shelf tome from the Talmud.

I’m afraid I had to explode this last legend in my new book, Genius and Anxiety, after finding a police report showing he actually died in the kitchen while preparing his evening meal, but I’m sure the myth will survive since so little else is known about the composer. The trouble with Alkan is that he wrote music of such complexity that hardly anyone else could play it. In the 1890s, Ferruccio Busoni was booed in Berlin for interpolating Alkan’s mind-blowing cadenza into Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. And, after that, few others were prepared to risk Alkan on an unprepared public.

Until, in 1970s London, a near-blind English pianist with massive hands began giving lecture-recitals on the South Bank, arguing that Alkan, more than Liszt, was the father of the modern piano. Ronald Smith was the pianist’s name, and he looked like a Home Counties bank manager but, playing from memory, Smith teased out lines of Alkan like it was white powder, sniffing out surreal anticipations of Mahler, Schoenberg and even Boulez in this hermit-crab composer.

Since then, Alkan has been taken up by a handful of pianists of phenomenal technique, among them the Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, the Scotsman Steven Osborne, the Englishman Stephen Hough and the Finnish wiz Olli Mustonen, all of whom have more fingers than they need to play standard stuff. The one piece they don’t play is the most preposterous of the composer’s scores — a Symphony for Solo Piano, which pretends that 88 keys can outperform an entire orchestra. Dating from Alkan’s locked-away years, the Symphony is surely more than one pair of hands can encompass.

So when a barrister at Gray’s Inn had a go at the Alkan Society in July 2016, pianophiles turned out to see if a dog could walk backwards and one of them, the record producer Mike Spring, sent a tape to the BIS label owner Robert von Bahr in Stockholm. Listening to the new BIS release, I kept rubbing my ears and checking the small print in the booklet to make sure this was not some foul act of digital trickery but an actual human performance. Sure enough, Paul C.K. Wee, a commercial lawyer at 3 Verulam Buildings, plays the unplayable.

An Australian of Singapore and Malaysian parentage, Wee took up piano aged four, made a Royal Albert Hall debut at 12 and faced a toss-up at 18 between Manhattan School of Music or a law degree at Oxford. The law won, he told me, because: ‘I wasn’t sure whether touring from city to city, living out of a suitcase away from family and friends and playing similar programmes night after night would yield the best framework for fostering and enjoying the connection with music that I have always had.’ So Wee today wears a Mozart wig in court and plays Alkan at night for light relief.

Trust me, there is nothing light about this score. In any halfway decent attempt at a performance, the Allegro opening movement sets a pace way over the speed limit and a noise level that is harmful to health. It is followed by a Marche funèbre that calls to mind Mahler’s in his First Symphony, with similar splashes of the macabre. And when Alkan writes Presto on the finale, he does not mean subsonic. Wee is not the fastest pair of hands I’ve heard — Hamelin’s personal best will take some beating — but he achieves a filigree accuracy and, velocity aside, a tear-streak of real feeling. At first hearing the Adagio in the companion piece, the Concerto for Solo Piano, might be mistaken for Chopin were it not for Alkan’s hot chase down blind alleys for an off-the-wall resolution: I’m a pianist, get me out of here. Always uncanny, entirely himself, Alkan defies the constraints of keys and fingers. The fact that a City lawyer can play his symphony is so crazy that it would be criminally negligent not to bring it immediately to your attention as my likely record of the year.

Paul Wee’s Alkan album is out now on BIS.