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8.223285 - ALKAN: Symphonie / Ouverture / Etudes, Op. 39

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813- 1888)

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)

From Douze études dans les tons mineurs, Op. 39

Symphonie, Op. 39, Nos. 4 - 7

Ouverture Op. 39, No. 11

Comme le vent Op. 39, No. 1

En rhythme molossique Op. 39, No. 2


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 Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society.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 Études 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.


In 1848 Alkan had published a set of twelve studies in all the major keys. Nine years later appeared its minor counterpart, the Douze études, dans tous les tons mineurs, Opus 39, twelve studies in all the minor keys. This later set of studies takes a curiously expanded form, including the four movements of a solo symphony and three movements of a concerto, in addition to an overture, the whole work an extended compendium of the composer's musical thought.


The monumental Symphonie, orchestral in conception, yet idiomatically written for the piano, is in four movements. True to the promise of the title of Opus 39, each is in a different key. The massive first movement is in C minor and is followed by an F minor Funeral March, with a gentle lightening of mood in an F major Trio section of particularly unexpected charm, before the slow tread of the march is resumed. The third movement Minuet moves to the darker key of B flat minor and is more of a Scherzo in mood, with touches of Ländler, contrasted with a lyrical central G flat major Trio, to be recalled briefly as the movement comes to an end. The finale, in E flat minor, described by the American pianist Raymond Lewenthal as a ride in Hell, is impelled relentlessly forward, its thematic material providing scope for contrapuntal exploration. This dazzling and demanding movement provides a conclusion of sufficient weight and brilliance to balance what has gone before, in a work of subtle cyclic unity.


The eleventh study, an Ouverture in the key of B minor, opens with a brief prelude, followed by sombre dotted rhythms, a fleeting reminder of the musical language Schumann found fitting for the majestic Cathedral of Cologne, melting into a much gentler mood, a simple theme, simply varied. An Allegro follows, based on three contrasted themes, the last in a darker mood, the material from which what follows is constructed. The Ouverture ends in B major with a final section that opens with a figure associated with the hunt and proceeds to a final affirmative reference to the opening of the Allegro.


Opus 39 opens with an A minor study under the title Comme le vent (Like the Wind), a tour de force for any performer, demanding, as it does, an extreme of speed. Although of relatively short duration, its structure corresponds to traditional sonata form, with a contrasting second melody emerging from the swirl of notes. It is followed by a study En rythme molossique (In Molossian Rhythm), in form a rondo, in the key of D minor, moving to D major, and dominated by the rhythm of the title. There is a return to the minor mode in a brief and hushed postscript. The two studies offer formidable difficulties to a performer, but are truer to the title of Opus 39 than much that follows.


Bernard Ringeissen


The French pianist Bernard Ringeissen was born in Paris, where he became a pupil of Marguerite long and Jacques Février, winning the Premier Prix of the Conservatoire at the age of sixteen. Three years later he took the first prize at the International Piano Competition in Geneva, followed by the Chopin Prize in Warsaw and the Marguerite long-Jacques Thibaud prize in Paris. In 1962 he won the major award of the Rio de Janeiro International Competition and the Villa-Lobos Special prize for his interpretation of Brasilian music. In a distinguished career Bernard Ringeissen has performed as a soloist and recitalist throughout the world, including the Americas and the Far East, and boasts a remarkably wide repertoire. He has served on juries for many of the most celebrated international piano competitions and recordings include three discs devoted to the Russian Five, a complete recording of the piano works of Saint-Saëns and of Stravinsky.

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