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Bicentenary Tribute: Charles-Valentin Alkan

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Jeremy Lee writes

Top Ear’s advocacy of the composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) is no secret.  After all, we’ve reviewed a few albums of his works and even created a bicentenary box just for him (here).  But who exactly was this composer, this elusive figure who spent most of his life in seclusion, this eccentric genius whose sly wit and piquant humour was evident in so many of his smaller-scale works, this absolute master of melody, harmony, and structure exemplified in his mammoth large-scale conceptions?

I believe much ink has been spilled on the biography of this composer, so I will not go into great detail.  In a nutshell, Alkan, born in 1813, was a child prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 6, and he gained early fame as a virtuoso pianist, one whose technique even Liszt feared.  He befriended many icons of the Parisian artistic circle such as Liszt, Chopin, George Sand, and composed mainly for the piano.  During this time his illegitimate son Élie-Miriam Delaborde was born.  In 1848, after expecting and failing to succeed Joseph Zimmerman as the head of the piano department of the Paris Conservatoire, he withdrew from social circles and went into a period of seclusion, during which period of time he studied the Bible and the Talmud fervently, the latter of which Jewish influence can be clearly heard in some of Alkan’s later works for organ and piano.  In 1873 Alkan suddenly reemerged to give a series of recitals, which greatly inspired the young Vincent d’Indy.  Most remarkable was his death:  in 1888, he was (possibly apocryphally) crushed to death by a bookshelf while reaching for a copy of the Talmud.

For a long while after his death, Alkan’s music remained neglected despite the promotion of such figures as Ferrucio Busoni, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Claudio Arrau, Sergei Rachmaninov, Kaikhosru Sorabji and Egon Petri.  But from around the 1960s onwards, his music was revived by the likes of Raymond Lewenthal (who gave a broadcast of Alkan’s music on New York radio in 1963) and Ronald Smith (who recorded many of his works for EMI).  This trend of revival has been speeding up as Alkan’s bicentenary draws closer, and modern exponents of his work include Marc-André Hamelin, Jack Gibbons, Steven Osborne, Vincenzo Maltempo and Pascal Amoyel, to say nothing of the various amateur pianists on Youtube.

That’s all you really need to know, biographically, about this composer, because what matters is his music, and his music really does deserve much more attention.  It’s no surprise that Busoni ranked Alkan with Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann as the greatest composers after Beethoven, because so much of his music is full of invention, insight, feeling, fun and good old virtuosity.  His magnum opus, the Op. 39 set of 12 Etudes in all the minor keys, deserves to be ranked as one of the milestones of pianistic development and the development of the etude form.  Taking around 2 hours to perform and containing within a symphony, concerto, overture and theme-and-variations, this set not only encompasses many musical forms, but also takes the piano beyond the realm of the merely pianistic.  It’s also immensely technically difficult, and the only example I need to offer is the half-hour-long first movement of the Concerto for Solo Piano (that is Etude No 8 in G sharp minor), which requires not only stamina but a massive load of technique to negotiate all those chords, repeated figures, leaps, runs and so on.  Other favorite Alkanian finger-busters include his Op. 35 set of 12 Etudes in all the major keys (thankfully much shorter than its sister), Grande Sonate (leaps ahoy in the second movement!), Scherzo Focoso, Le Chemin de Fer, the Op. 76 set of 3 etudes for various hands, the Op. 15 set of what we like to call “Pathetic Pieces”, and of course the almost impossible Le Preux.  All you need to do to know what difficulty really is, is simply to look at the score.

Which brings me to one of the possible reasons why Alkan’s music has been so unjustly neglected.  By expanding the possibilities of the piano to such a great extent, some of Alkan’s music is inevitably beyond the realm of the technique of most amateur pianists, and few professional pianists will have the time (and patience?) to negotiate the 1300+ bars of the Concerto’s first movement.  Yet while some of Alkan’s works are extremely long and difficult, many aren’t:  the Symphony, for instance, is a succinct piano sonata taking around 27 minutes to perform, and its technical difficulties certainly aren’t unmanageable–don’t tell me the Liszt Sonata is any less difficult.  (Look, even I managed half of it!)  What’s more, Alkan wrote so many smaller-scale pieces–his 25 Preludes Op. 31, his 48 Esquisses Op. 63–that are no more challenging to play than any of the prelude sets by Chopin, Shostakovich or Rachmaninov.

And even if the technical difficulties are considerable at times, there’s every reason why one should master them because the musical content is so satisfying.  So many of Alkan’s melodies are immediately accessible, appealing and touching, such as the Trio section of the Grande Sonate’s first movement 20 ans, the three main themes of the Concerto’s first movement, the theme of Le Festin d’Esope (a classic example of musical Déjà vu), the incomparably moving Salut! cendre du Pauvre, Op. 45, the Etude in G Major, Op. 35 No. 3, the Cello Sonata Op. 47–I could go on and on.  I think it’s safe to say that few other composers have ever produced such a large amount of memorable melodies in their output.  Alkan’s mastery of form, too, was vastly innovative:  no matter how long the piece or how complex the development of themes, coherence is everywhere to be heard.  The Concerto’s first movement, despite its 30 minute length, is clearly an extended concerto sonata form, with 3 main themes (exposition) that develop dazzingly throughout the piece (development), finally reaching a spectacular climactic reprise (recapitulation) and ending in a monstrous flurry of repeated-notes (coda) that would strike fear into the heart of any pianist.  The substantial second movement of the Grande Sonate, 30 ans, also sports a clearly discernible extended sonata form, though of course it’s much more conventional and succinct than the Concerto’s first movement.  And of course there was Alkan’s daring wit.  There’s no way one should end a piece called En Songe (A Dream), completely diaphanous and pp throughout, with a shattering ff slap on the face, nor should any sane composer write a funeral march for a parrot, whose only lyrics are “Have you eaten yet, Jaco?”.  Yet that was exactly what Alkan did, and putting aside the matter of sense, it’s typical Alkanian in-your-face effrontery.

Yet to me the most noteworthy facet of Alkan’s artistry was his profound innovative sense, a sense that would prophesy over and foreshadow the future development of music.  Alkan was the first composer to write a piece based on a railroad (the etude Le Chemin de Fer) and a village fire (Etude Op. 35 No. 7 “Fire in the Neighboring Village”), and was also one of the first to employ progressive tonality (the Concerto and Symphony, and most notably the Grande Sonate, which starts in D major and ends in G sharp minor, and whose second movement starts in D sharp minor and ends in the relative (not parallel) major), long before Mahler or Nielsen did.  Many of his pieces bring the pianist to uncharted tonal realms, such as the 8-part-fugue in the middle of 30 ans in which the player is inadvertently transported to E sharp major.  He rewrote the concept of a piano sonata by starting his Grande Sonate with a scherzo and writing each succeeding movement progressively slower, to depict the four ages of man.  His idea of expanding the piano’s limits to reach symphonic dimensions is also unprecedented:  the Concerto is a true Concerto because the pianist is required to imitate both the orchestra and the piano–hence its juxtaposition of pianistic and symphonic writing, both for the piano, not to mention the difficulty in doing so.  Thematically many of his pieces deal with mortality, fate and struggle, which greatly inspired Liszt (the shadow of 30 ans is everywhere to be heard in Liszt’s Sonata), and foreshadowed Mahler (the Sixth Symphony, maybe?).  Besides, the juxtaposition of natural elements and banality with the sublime is distinctly Mahlerian:  military tattoos, bird calls and drum rolls often come face to face with some of the most beautiful and original melodies ever written, and cohabit instead of repel, producing a work that, combined with Alkan’s typical wit, can only be Alkan’s.

This is Alkan to me, or should I say part of who Alkan really was, because I could go further to discuss his chamber music and pieces for organ and pedalier.  Yet I believe the above is sufficient evidence for one to rank him as one of the greatest composer that ever lived.  There’s really no excuse (aside, possibly, for the major works’ difficulty) that his music should be neglected for so long, or that so many major pianists have eschewed his repertoire.  Yet are pianists completely to be blamed for such neglect?  Too often, budding pianists under major recording contracts are coerced to play those overplayed warhorses and leave out obscure pieces, hence the 100+ different versions of Liszt’s Sonata on the market and only a few Grande Sonates (which is incidentally the most recorded Alkan piece, in whole or in part).  This explains why no recent albums by major recording labels have included Alkan, and also why EMI doesn’t bother reissuing Smith’s Alkan series, RCA doesn’t care for Ogdon’s Alkan Concerto, Decca has only one Alkan piece in their entire catalog (Alkan’s Preludes, played by Olli Mustonen, and it’s out of print) and DG has none.  Even music festivals aren’t immune to this sort of problem.  When some more enterprising pianists submit their proposal of a recital containing Alkan, the organizers would say, “We would love for you to play the Chopin Sonata and these Rachmaninov Concertos and these Beethoven Bagatelles, but please, not the Alkan!”  So in the end possibly the only music festival that allows for some Alkan is the Husum Music Festival.  And have you ever heard of it?

Certainly Alkan isn’t the only composer to have suffered from such neglect not because of the music but because of these major music enterprises who too often aren’t willing to take risks, to the detriment of both performers and listeners–Medtner is another.  But is it true that Alkan doesn’t sell?  Not at all.  Marc-André Hamelin’s career took off with Hyperion partly because of his acclaimed Alkan series, and Jack Gibbons’ spectacular 2CD set of the Op. 39 etudes was the best-selling ASV album in the United States.  At any rate, Alkanians can thank their lucky stars for Alkan’s revival (no doubt spurred by the bicentenary), and for recording companies such as Piano Classics, Hyperion and La Dolce Volta who are enterprising enough to record and release Alkan for the enjoyment of listeners.

But that’s enough ranting. Who exactly was Alkan?  An eccentric, an innovator, and above all a master whose genius was and remains completely accessible.  And of course, today’s birthday boy.  Happy 200th birthday, Charles-Valentin Alkan!

Recommended recordings

Alkan:  12 Études, Op. 39 (Jack Gibbons, ASV) Review

Alkan:  Grande sonate ‘Les quatre âges’, Sonatine, Le festin d’Esope (Marc-André Hamelin, Hyperion)

Alkan:  Symphony for solo piano (Marc-André Hamelin, Hyperion)

Alkan:  Concerto for Solo Piano, Op. 39;  Troisième recueil de chants (Marc-André Hamelin, Hyperion)

Alkan:  3 Grande Etudes, Sonatine, 2 Pieces (Alessandro Deljavan, Piano Classics)

Alkan:  Grande Sonate, Symphony (Vincenzo Maltempo, Piano Classics)

Alkan: Le festin d’Esope; Trois morceaux; Ouverture; Sonatine (Vincenzo Maltempo, Piano Classics)

Alkan:  Piano Works Vol. 1 (Ronald Smith, EMI)

Alkan:  Piano Works Vol. 2 (Ronald Smith, EMI)

Alkan:  Piano Music, Volume 1: 12 Etudes, Op. 35 (Bernard Ringeissen, Naxos) Review

Piano Music of Alkan;  Liszt:  Hexameron (Raymond Lewenthal, RCA)

Alkan:  Cello Sonata;  Liszt:  Works for Cello and Piano (Emmanuelle Bertrand (cello);  Pascal Amoyel (piano), Harmonia Mundi) Review

Alkan and Chopin:  Cello Sonatas (Alban Gerhardt (cello);  Steven Osborne (piano), Hyperion)

Recommended readings

The Myths of Alkan, by Jack Gibbons:

Alkan:  The Man, The Music, by Ronald Smith:

Other resources

Raymond Lewenthal’s pioneering radio talk on Alkan:

The Alkan Society:


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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