Top Ear

200 Years of Alkan: From Saint-Saëns to Freire



Jeremy Lee and Leonard Ip write

Following enormous promotions and numerous releases on Chopin and Liszt’s 200th birth anniversaries in 2010 and 2011, what’s now left for their fellow composer-pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan’s this year is, to piano mavens, worrying. But rejoice, folks! Piano Classics has unearthed, from some quite improbable sources, some unbelievably rare recordings of quite a few great pianists playing the music of Alkan, certainly one of the best things ever to have been given to a composer for his anniversary.  Just look at the roster and marvel at the amount of legendary pianists that have actually tried their hands on Alkan’s music, and you’ll be surprised why on earth nowadays nobody plays this great composer’s music.  Baffling, innit?

Let’s start with the centerpiece of this well-filled 4CD collection, Claudio Arrau’s private performance of the monumental Concerto for Solo Piano recorded in 1933, when, at the age of 30, he was famed as a firebrand virtuoso.  Arrau’s consummate virtuosity runs the gamut of whatever challenges Alkan throws at him.  You’ll hear none of that ponderous pace or massive bass sonority in his later recordings (c.f Liszt Etudes):  instead, listen to those astonishingly devil-may-care runs, leaps, repeated notes and so on, but in the lyrical places too all the gemütlich, singing legatos that made his older recordings so full of his special aura.  It’s a miracle that this recording survived the war at all, and so complete too – none of those massive cuts taken by Ronald Smith in his first recording. This release, then, makes history: Arrau’s recording now predates John Ogdon’s as the first ever complete recording of the Alkan concerto.

And then we have Horowitz’s share, a real treat for fans of this astonishing pianist. According to Harold C. Schonberg’s Horowitz biography, the pianist tried his hands on Alkan during his early years in New York, and this recording of Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano, recorded off-air in the 1940s (though the booklet notes can’t give an exact year), is a hoot from start to finish. The cataclysmic C minor climax at the end of the first movement is played with devastating dramatic impact – in this recording, finally, Egon Petri’s immortal 1950s performance found its closest rival. Fans of Horowitz bass-banging will be thrilled to know that his finale is full of them, and of course, what’s a Horowitz recital without those added runs in the Minuet! As an encore, Horowitz presents us with the 14th Esquisse, a homage to Scarlatti, and of course impossibly delightful under the hands of the Scarlatti master. Horowitz’s Finale is fast, at around 4:16, but in terms of speed, he can’t match Simon Barere, the first-ever pianist to bring the movement home in less than 4 minutes (albeit only 7 seconds less). It’s hair-raising, but nothing more – the runs are a bit shoddy.

Cziffra, meanwhile, gets the lion’s share of the flashy etudes, and this octave machine dispatches the knotty octaves of the Op. 12 No. 1 etude (as well as the Allegro Barbaro) with about 10 times the excitement he famously brought to Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique, while offering plenty of sensitivity (not a given with this pianist) in the rest of the Op. 12 and Op. 16. And while we’re at the topic of octaves, may I draw your attention to Grainger’s Allegro Barbaro, recorded as an encore from a recital in 1949, with all that attitude (and wrong notes) you would expect, and of course Erwin Nyiregyhazi’s insane Le Preux, a bootleg from a live recital in Japan in 1979 – the coda is simply a tornado of sound.

Besides these, we have a selection of ancient recordings from golden-age composer-pianists. Listen to how Saint-Saëns, in an awful-sounding acoustic tape from 1919, negotiates the runs in Comme le Vent with inhuman evenness and speed and betraying none of his age. Busoni’s recordings of Scherzo Diabolique and his favorite Prelude, “I sleep but my heart keeps watch”, is lucky to have resurfaced despite the Columbia factory fire in the 1920s, and his repertoire presents the consummate pianist in all his glory – the scherzo is full of fire, while the Prelude afloat with almost hypnotic sensitivity. A bootleg from 1941 of Rachmaninov playing En Rhythme Mossolique in New York displays the pianist’s large sonority, expressive economy and effortless facility.

There are also some snippets from recordings of some favorite old master pianists. Samuel Feinberg’s 6th Esquisse, a fughetta, is immaculately voiced, but his 13th Prelude (the one Busoni played) is an unfortunate glib-through. Blumenfeld must have learnt Alkan’s Left Hand Etude before he composed his own: indeed, Blumenfeld gives it all the grandness and conviction one might possibly want from this not particularly well written work, though for some reason Blumenfeld cuts a huge bit from the Gravement section. And speaking of cuts: some three minutes are cut from Josef Hofmann’s Capriccio alla Soltadesca, and Cortot seems to have suffered terribly from his memory lapse in the same piece, as can be heard from him stopping at bar 124 and returning to the start of the development – otherwise, these two endlessly entertaining performances offer a rare opportunity to directly compare the two pianists’ differences. Moritz Rosenthal, on the other hand, does exactly the opposite and offers us some added material in a bid, probably, to enliven the rather banal C Sharp Major “Contrapunctus” etude from Op. 35. Cherkaasky’s reading of the Salut, Cendre du Pauvre, stemming from a stereo pirate from the late 50s, features unbelievably touching piano playing (pun intended). Op. 38 No. 1 Chant, played by Paderewski, is characterized by a songfulness that can only be described as a golden beam of sunlight.

Disc three and four gives us some recordings from more modern pianists. Bolet’s selection of etudes from Op. 35 (No. 7, 10 and 11) is aristocratic and golden (and observe how he whips up that fire frenzy in No. 7 nothing short of what he did to Liszt’s eloquent Orage), and his 48th Esquisse is suitably dreamlike. Rubinstein’s Le Festin d’Esope (a stereo pirate, again, from a 1963 concert as an encore) is unbelievably characterful and full of aplomb, while Samson Francois’ performance of the quirky Op. 24 Gigue yields nothing to Smith’s angular tidiness. Aldo Ciccolini’s impeccably executed Alkan Sonatine was recorded at around the same time he did his Debussy traversal, but needless to say EMI didn’t care for it at all and licensed the master tapes to Piano Classics. EMI was dead wrong – it’s a performance full of piquant character and tremendous fun, and deserves to have made it onto disc in the first place. And to hear Nelson Freire fly through the Concerto’s finale is an amazing experience – why won’t he play it live for once?

At last, Disc Four concludes with some real gems. There’s an enthralling performance Rachmaninov and Horowitz trying their hands on the garbage two-piano Don Juan Fantasy Op. 25 dating from 1940, the only recording of these two pianists playing together, and an all-star Concerto da Camera No. 2 with John Ogdon and Marriner/ASMF, a performance of intricate beauty and charm, recorded by Decca alongside their Shostakovich (now on Eloquence) but of course discarded.

The sonics vary widely, from full-bodied, excellent stereo in the Ogdon Concerto da Camera, to absolutely vile in the Saint-Saëns (you can only ever hear around 40% of what he is playing), but thankfully Norman P. Montmorency’s transfers are masterful enough to prevent the older items from sounding like mere noise. In all, this collection is not entirely consistent, but as a collector item, a document of the styles of great pianists playing Alkan, and of course a bicentenary tribute to Alkan, nothing gets better than this.


  • Album name:  Alkan 200:  From Saint-Saëns to Freire
  • Performers:  Camille Saint-Saëns;  Ferrucio Busoni;  Samuel Feinberg;  Felix Blumenfeld;  Simon Barere;  Sergey Rachmaninov;  Josef Hofmann;  Alfred Cortot;  Moritz Rosenthal;  Erwin Nyiregyhazi;  Arthur Rubinstein;  Samson Francois;  Ignacy Jan Paderewski;  Wilhelm Bachaus;  Percy Grainger;  Aldo Ciccolini;  Claudio Arrau;  Vladimir Horowitz;  Shura Cherkaasky;  György Cziffra;  Jorge Bolet;  Nelson Freire;  John Ogdon (pianos);  Neville Marriner (conductor, Concerto da Camera No. 2);  Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
  • Label:  Piano Classics PCL 0401
  • Sonics:  Mono/Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  5:04:52

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

7 thoughts on “200 Years of Alkan: From Saint-Saëns to Freire

  1. hi, i´m interesed on this cd box-set. where can i found it for buy it?

  2. Jaime’s question deserves a serious answer as this set is not listed on the Piano Classics website or at anybonline vendor so does it really exist?

    • If you would observe the date, you will realize that this article is published on April 1st–April Fool’s Day. Therefore this set is, obviously, non-existent, and this article is just for laughs.

  3. Awww….. i was very happy but i grow suspicious when they mention Rach and Horowitz playing together on the only recording they have of them

  4. Pingback: Top Ear’s 2nd Anniversary! | Top Ear

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