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8.223284 - ALKAN: Preludes, Op. 31

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)
25 Préludes, dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 31


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 Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society.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 settled at an apartment 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 Etudes 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 by 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.

The 25 Preludes in all major and minor keys, Opus 31, appeared in 1847, designed for piano or organ, or, no doubt, for the instrument that Alkan particularly favoured, the pédalier or pianoforte with pedal-board, for which Schumann and Gounod, among others, also wrote. The Preludes go through all 24 keys, returning to a final Prayer in the affirmative original key of C major. The first set of nine opens meditatively and proceeds in a sequence of keys that moves alternately up a fourth and down a third, to F minor in the second and to D-flat major in the third, Dans le genre ancien, the old style in question being nothing more ancient than Bach, heard through the ears of Mendelssohn. Jewish tradition is at the root of the Prière du soir (“Evening Prayer”), the rejoicing of Psalm 150 and the Cantor’s chant of the Sixth Prelude. The rhythm of Schubert and harmony of Schumann mark the relatively cheerful Seventh Prelude, contrasted with La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (“The Song of the Mad Woman on the Shore”), where the deep tones of the sea itself accompany the increasing tension of the song. The group ends with Placiditas, as tranquil in mood as its title.

The second group of Preludes opens with a rapid fugal piece in the key of A minor, leading to a pleasant trifle, Un petit rien. Le temps qui n’est plus (“Time Past”) brings its own B-flat minor melancholy, leading to Busoni’s favourite Prelude, inspired by a verse from the Song of Songs, "I slept, but my heart watched". A rapid B minor Prelude, moving to B major, is succeeded by Dans le genre gothique (“In the Gothic Style”), a Prelude of beguilingly un-Gothic simplicity and the gentle melancholy of the sixteenth of the series. Rêve d’amour (“Dream of Love”), with its shifting harmonies, and conclusion marked "palpitan", ends the set.

The third suite, which has the title Enseignement du piano (“Piano Instruction”) starts with an expressive melody for the right hand, based on a repeated rhythmic figure. The following Prelude is a morning prayer, Prière du matin (“Morning Prayer”), followed by a study in octaves. A gentle interlude in B-flat major gives way to Anniversaire of apparent ingenuousness, followed by a pair of Preludes, the second of which is an exercise in velocity, calling for extreme rapidity and delicacy in the right hand. A C major Prayer ends the work.

Keith Anderson

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