Stephanie McCallum (piano)
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Reclusive, eccentric French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan departed this life in a way that was as dramatic and noisy as much of his music. Trying to prise a book from a high shelf, he brought the bookcase, laden with volumes, down upon him. Exit Alkan.
His music is often so terrifyingly difficult that hardly anyone can play it. And of that small band of intrepid pianists, fewer still are game enough to play it in public.
Australian pianist Stephanie McCallum belongs to that tiny group of virtuosos. She devoted the first half of her program to a single work – Alkan’s massive Symphony for Solo Piano.
From the opening measures, McCallum established her credentials as an Alkan interpreter of distinction. She
sounded entirely in her element, not least in the finale with its powerful demonic quality. Here, she maintained a blistering pace as she marshalled floodtides of notes and focussed fiercely on keeping on track as she powered to a triumphant end, for all the world like some musical Michael Schumacher. True, at the height of some of the many climaxes that dot the score, one would have hoped for rather greater tonal power but this detracted only minimally from overall listening pleasure.
Earlier in the work, McCallum essayed the funeral march impressively, its stark, pared-down figurations evoking images of naked branches of elms in mid-winter. Here, her left hand was exceptionally articulate. The Minuet was given rich-toned treatment.
McCallum scaled the heights once more in Saint Saens’ Toccata, based on a theme from his Egyptian Piano Concerto. Here, her hands moved up and down the keyboard as nonchalantly as if she were dusting the furniture as she near-flawlessly outlined intricate, high-treble traceries. It was an astonishing achievement.
In three of Liszt’s responses to Petrarch sonnets, she explored the composer’s idiosyncratic inner world in a largely satisfying way even if, in purely notational terms, the presentation was not entirely without error.
Copyright Neville Cohn 2004