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8.223500 - ALKAN: Etudes, Opp. 12 and 76
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
Trois études de bravoure (Improvisations), Op. 12
Le preux (Etude de concert), Op. 17
Le chemin de fer, Op. 27
Trois grandes études pour les mains séparées et réunies, Op. 76
The name of Alkan was once joined with Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Brahms, as one of the greatest composers for the piano in the age that followed the death of Beethoven. At the same time he won praise as one of the most remarkable pianists of his time. Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in his music, led at the beginning of the twentieth century by Busoni and furthered by other champions. This interest has yet to result in any widespread attention to Alkan among performers, for whom he often presents very considerable technical problems.
Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange, the eldest of the five children of Alkan Morhange, a music-teacher whose forebears had settled in Paris in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of the city. He and his brothers chose to use their father's name in preference to the family name and all were to make their careers in music in one way or another. Charles-Valentin Alkan made his first concert appearance as a violinist at the age of seven in 1821. At the Conservatoire he was a piano pupil of Joseph Zimmermann, future father-in-law of Gounod and teacher of Bizet and César Franck, and won considerable success as a child prodigy, exciting even the admiration of Cherubini. He enjoyed the particular favour of aristocratic patrons, including the Princess de la Moskova and other members of the Russian circle in Paris, his success prejudiced to his momentary chagrin by the first appearance of the young Liszt. With Chopin he felt greater affinity. The two had much in common, and both were to become respected in Paris as private teachers to the aristocracy, although Chopin never isolated himself from society, as Alkan was to, and his musical innovations were to take another form.
In the 1830s, his studies at the Conservatoire now concluded with great distinction, Alkan settied ay an apartmeny in the Place d'Orléans. He continued to busy himself as a composer, chiefly for the piano, publishing music that Schumann, indulging in his early musical journalism, found false and unnatural, these the least of his strictures. Certainly Schumann himself would have found insuperable technical difficulties in the Trois Grandes Eludes of 1838, one for left hand, one for right hand, and the third for both hands together. In March, 1838, after a series of concert appearances in Paris which had established him as a performer of the first rank, Alkan appeared in a recital with Chopin, before an enthusiastic audience. This seems to have been his last public concert for some six years, during which it was rumoured that a possible affaire with a married woman had led to the birth of a son, Elie Miriam Delaborde, the future pianist and editor of some of Alkan's music.
Alkan's concert appearances in 1844 and 1845 were followed by a further long period of silence and withdrawal from the concert platform. 1848 in particular brought a significant disappointment. Considered by many, and certainly by himself, as the clear successor to Zimmermann at the Conservatoire, he was passed over by the new Director, Auber, who chose to appoint instead Marmontel, a younger musician for whom Alkan had little respect, as is apparent from the letters he wrote supporting his own candidature, enlisting George Sand among others in his cause. He gave a concert in May, 1849, his last for the next 25 years.
Isolating himself from the general musical life of Paris, Alkan continued in the following years to teach and, intermittently, to compose. Protected from unwanted visitors by a vigilant concierge, he lived a hypochondriac bachelor existence of obvious eccentricity, continuing his long-standing interest in the scriptures and translating from the Hebrew Talmud and later from the Syriac version of the New Testament. In 1873, however, he emerged from retirement to offer a series of Six Petits Concerts de Musique Classique at the Salons Erard, with which he had had an enduring association. As in his programmes of forty years before, or those of Rubinstein's historical concerts, he offered a remarkable conspectus of keyboard music, played with a classical precision and a technique only slightly affected his years. These concert series seem to have continued intermittently until the time of his death in 1888, while the curious could hear him every Monday and Thursday at the Salle Erard, where an instrument was at his disposal.
The manner of Alkan's death has been a matter of some speculation. Although the narrative has been romantically embellished, it seems probable that he died as the result of a domestic accident, when a cupboard or book-case fell on him. Whether or not he died clutching a copy of the Talmud, retrieved from the top shelf of the collapsing book-case, is open to doubt. The story emphasises, at least, Alkan's religious and literary interests, offering an interesting inverse parallel to the flamboyant career of his contemporary Liszt, turned Abbé, who had died in lodgings in Bayreuth, attended by one of his young female pupils, in 1886.
In 1837 Alkan published a series of twelve pieces, Trois études de bravoure or Improvisations, Op. 12, Trois andantes romantiques, Op. 13, Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op. 15 and Trois études de bravoure (Scherzi), Op.16. These twelve piano pieces were issued in four volumes under the general title Douze Caprices. The studies that form the first volume had the earlier title Improvisations dans le style brillant, aptly descriptive. The first of the three, with its leaping octaves and sudden modulations, opens the door to a new world, technically and musically. It is followed by a D flat major Allegretto, initially a gentle contrast, although it increases in intensity, before the wistful ending over a sustained pedal-point. The Improvisations end with a B minor March, transforming what might otherwise have seemed trite thematic material into something much more imposing.
Le preux, Op. 17, The Valiant Knight, was published in 1844, and is again a bravura concert study, offering technical challenges to the performer, something suggested already in the choice of title, with pianist as champion. Lechemin de fer, Op. 27, The Railway, was also published in 1844,celebrating in musical terms a railway journey, a relative novelty of the period and something that was to provide material over the years for a number of other composers, intrigued by the rhythm of the machine and the whistle of the engine. Railway journeys of this kind presented possible dangers, and of these Alkan is well aware, as the train gathers by speed, before coming to a halt in safety.
The Trois grandes études, Op. 76, first appeared in 1838, although they were subsequently given the opus number of a later period. The first of these formidable studies is an A flat Fantaisie for left hand alone. An introduction is developed at an increased speed, leading to an extended final section, based on a sinister theme announced in lower register octaves. The second study, a D major Introduction, variations et finale for the right hand alone, makes still greater technical demands. The opening is in the form of a solemn introduction, with just the suggestion of a well known Schubert song in its melodic contour. The gentle theme, in A major, is followed by variations that explore changes of key and texture. The gentle staccato of the first leads to a contrapuntal F major second variation, an elaborate third in C major and a fourth of astonishing virtuosity, the final variation restoring the original key of A major, before the histrionic D major Finale. Both hands reunite in the third study in C minor, an extended rondo that presses forward with the motor impetus of a rapid toccata.
Born in Lyons, Laurent Martin was a pupil of Joseph Benvenuti and Monique Haas at the Paris Conservatoire, later studying with Pierre Sancan and winning distinction in a number of international piano competitions. In 1973 he won the Maria Canals Prize in Barcelona, thereafter involving himself in chamber music and in a solo career. In addition to standard recital and concerto repertoire Laurent Martin has also paid considerable attention to unjustly neglected piano music of the 19th century by George Onslow, Alkan, Alexis de Castillon, and, from the present century, Federico Mompou. In 1988 Valéry Giscard d'Estaing bestowed on him the Auvergnat de l'année prize for his promotion of the music of George Onslow and for the creation of the Concerts de Vollore (1978) and Piano à Riom Festivals (1987).
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