Top Ear

Jack Gibbons’ Astounding Alkan


Jeremy Lee writes

This.  Album.  Needs.  To.  Be.  More.  Well.  Known.

Yes, pianophiles who are aware of Alkan have to know that there is not only one great recording of Alkan’s Symphony or Concerto for solo piano.  Like many other people, I was first introduced to Alkan by the technically unflappable recordings of Marc-André Hamelin, and I was pretty much convinced that they were THE definite recordings.  That was until Jack Gibbons’ recording of the complete Op. 39 came along.  And it totally blew me away.

After a quick hearing of Gibbons’ Symphony and the Concerto, it’s hard not to realize that his technique yields nothing to Hamelin’s, yet while Hamelin presents us with a cool, Apollonian view of these two masterworks, Jack Gibbons goes all out with his technique, and in dazzling display reveals all their thrilling Dionysian qualities.  Consider the first movement of the Symphony:  Hamelin’s more symphonic approach paints the picture in darker, warmer tones, frequently putting emphasis to the brooding C minor tonality, while Gibbons’ more red-blooded, relentless way reveals to the listener Alkan’s mastery in form and structure, the “long line”, and proves to be entirely convincing (even though personally I prefer Hamelin’s more contrasted way).  As for the finger-busting Finale, I’d certainly take Gibbons’ wild and thrilling hell-ride over Hamelin’s unfazed cruise in a Veyron any day.

The Concerto takes the differences between the two pianists further.  In the first movement, it’s certainly difficult to keep your jaws in place when you hear Hamelin chopping the block chords in the left hand in bar…er…463 (if I counted correctly) like a butcher would chop meat, or the inhuman repeated notes in the coda (the segno sign).  It’s also evident that Hamelin takes more care to differentiate the pianistic and orchestral textures.  However, Gibbons’ ability to eke out freshness and thrills from virtually every bar never fails to amaze me, a true “sense of discovery”, if you wish.  The repeated G sharps leading to the brilliant fireworks in B major have a mystery and tension that can’t be found in Hamelin’s reading, and the gradual crescendo of these 66 bars is so inexorable you won’t be the slightest bit bothered even if the fireworks proper aren’t as impressive as Hamelin’s.  But then Gibbons never fails to stupefy even after that slight disappointment:  the runs in bar 837 marked “lanciato” are executed with the kind of mad abandonment (thanks in part to Gibbon’s addition of several notes) that makes it sound like a petrified scream.  Great stuff!  When the theme first heard in E major modulates to G sharp major in bar 1029, Gibbons displays a wild, raw passion that would make Scriabin turn green, and his more angular execution of the repeated notes passage after the segno is equally as amazing.  The Finale bears similar merits as that of the Symphony, in which Gibbons’ searing traversal matches if not surpasses Hamelin’s cool-headed, glistening elegance.  Now at this point you may be thinking Gibbons’ is all thrills and no sensitivity, but no:  listen to the way he sings the Adagio of the Concerto or the Funeral March of the Symphony and you will be completely won over.

Another big plus that Gibbons has over Hamelin is that the former recorded all the 12 Etudes in this set of 2CDs, which means we can hear more of his astounding technique.  True, his technique can’t really save the penultimate Ouverture from its banality, but all the other (more etude-like) etudes are done with such conviction and ease, you could almost be lured into play them yourself!  In fact, Gibbons’ lively, story-telling approach to Le Festin (the last etude) makes it my recording of choice.

But wait–there’s more!  There are a few fillers besides the 12 Etudes, including a few Esquisses, some Preludes, some Chants, and a particularly hair-raising Allegro Barbaro (a work that Jack Gibbons unquestionably owns), all for the curious who don’t want to start with the larger works and instead delight in some quirky miniatures.  Gibbons’ own notes are an absolute joy to read.  Add stunningly realistic sound and a low price tag to the aforementioned merits, and it’s evident that these two well-filled discs will be the only Alkan album you will ever need.  (Incidentally, this album is one of the rare ones which both of us at Top Ear own, which is saying a lot given our often widely differing views.)  And even if you don’t like Alkan, Jack Gibbons’ immense pianism will win you over totally.


  • Album name:  Alkan:  12 Études Op. 39
  • Performers:  Jack Gibbons (piano)
  • Label:  ASV CD DCS 227
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  154:58


Gibbons plays the Concerto in these discs spectacularly, but there are occasionally a few wrong notes.  What a surprise, then, to find Gibbons play the Concerto live in even better form than he did in the studio!  This live recording is even more intense, has lesser wrong notes, and includes a spoken introduction by Gibbons himself which of course reveals his affinity and knowledge of the piece.

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

3 thoughts on “Jack Gibbons’ Astounding Alkan

  1. Thanks for the great article..

  2. Excellent review! Good comparison between the performances of Hamelin and Gibbons. Both artistic approaches are certainly valid. It depends on the ‘given day’ which I prefer, but I admit I lean strongly to Gibbons.

    I first heard Alkan’s music through the recorded performances of Ronald Smith in the 1980’s, and they were a revelation. When I heard the recordings of Jack Gibbons of Alkan I was astounded.

    As a music lover I return to Mr. Gibbon’s recordings often. He is a consummate artist in that his technique (which is world-class) serves the music. If he dazzles, it is because the music he chooses to play is of the highest quality. To paraphrase a wise musician, technique is like money. You need it to survive, but after you have the things you need, it is how you spend the rest of it that matters. Mr. Gibbons ‘spends’ his technical money on making music, pure and simple.

    A word about wrong notes –
    I understand that a good ear can notice wrong notes, especially in a performance of a work the hearer knows well. Perhaps it is because I’ve heard many amateur pianists and also had more than my share of wrong notes while playing the piano, but an occasional wrong note in a performance is not the point. If the performance is musically strong and touches me, wrong notes hardly matter. I would rather hear Mr. Gibbon’s wrong notes while he makes music than a note-perfect, boring performance.

    This is a very good blog, and I’ll return often. Keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks for this blog and for bringing people’s attention to the wonderful Alkan performances of Jack Gibbons. Here in Oxford we have had the great honour of attending Jack’s concerts for many years, including performances of Alkan. As you see from the video, Gibbons concerts also consist of informed and entertaining introductions to the pieces and performers. He is a pianist who communicates both through his playing and also through his interaction with the public. He has often said that he enjoys more than anything the atmosphere of a salon performance and he manages to create that intense feeling in his summer season at the Holywell in Oxford.

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