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8.223351 - ALKAN: 12 Etudes, Op. 35 / Le festin d'Esope / Scherzo diabolico

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)
12 Etudes, Op. 35 • Le festin d’Esope • Scherzo diabolico


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 Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society.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 affair with a married woman, Elie Miriam Delaborde, the future pianist and editor of some of Alkan’s music, had led to the birth of a son.

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 aseries 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.

He remarkable Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Opus 39, was published in 1857, alter ten years during which Alkan had withdrawn from public appearance and publication. An extended work, it includes a four-movement symphony and three movement concerto for piano and ends with a brilliant excursion into variation form with Le festin d’Esope, 25 variations on an original theme. The melody on which these variations are based has been compared to a Hasidic theme, to which it bears some similarity, although there are certain traces of far more generally known melodies. The title itself, the Feast of Aesop, has been variously interpreted. Some have chosen to see in each variation an animal from a fable of Aesop. The Alkan scholar Ronald Smith, however, has convincingly suggested that the feast in question is one recounted in an apocryphal life of Aesop, an anecdote rightly scorned by La Fontaine. Aesop, himself a slave, was ordered by his master to provide food for two successive banquets for philosopher guests, the first banquet of the best food and the one on the second night of the basest. The slave Aesop served ox-tongue, variously dressed, on each occasion, demonstrating that the word has power for good and evil. Alkan provides every possible guise for his 25 variations, and it is, of course, possible that he had in mind both the feast provided for Aesop’s master Xanthus and his guests and the animals of the fables themselves.

The E minor theme itself suggests a familiar nursery tune, followed by a variation with the theme in the bass, succeeded by versions of increasing brilliance, resting briefly in the major, and exploiting the full range of the piano. A high register variation is followed by one of military ferocity and one of gently dotted rhythm, leading to brilliant filigree ornamentation. Cascades of descending figures are followed by gruff chords in the lower register, a chordal variation, a jocular version, a sinister tremolo and subsequent variations of startling ingenuity from which the theme is never far away.

The Scherzo diabolico is a virtuoso exploration of a world into which Liszt had ventured with some success in his Mephistophelean mood, its central Trio chordal in texture, after which the original Scherzo returns, with its curiously abrupt melodic figures.

The Douze études dans tous les tons majeurs, Opus 35, twelve studies in all major keys, belong to an earlier period of Alkan’s life and were published in 1847. The major keys are placed in order of ascending fourths, making transition from one to the other harmonically satisfactory. There is little hint in the first study in A major of the very considerable technical demands to come. The second study, in D major, contrasts legato and staccato. It is followed by a G major Andantino and the insistent tremolo of the C major fourth study. The fifth study is marked Allegro barbaro, a direction associated rather with Bartók than earlier composers, and although in F major uses only the white notes of the keyboard, giving it an overt modal structure. The sixth study calls for extreme flexibility of the hand in its octave patterns. There is a programmatic element in the seventh of the studies, in E-flat, with the title L’incendie au village voisin, fire in the neighbouring village, a remarkable picture in sound, in which pastoral serenity is shattered by an outbreak of fire, quenched with difficulty when fire-fighters come to the rescue, a relief for which the villagers give much thanks in a hymn of gratitude. The whole study is an example of a once fashionable genre that manifested itself in many less worthy forms in the drawing-rooms of the bourgeoisie.

The A-flat eighth study interweaves a legato melody with a staccato accompaniment and is followed by a C-sharp study (C sharp = D-flat enharmonically), Contrapunctus, a display of contrapuntal ingenuity using a wide range of the keyboard, and with a canonic central section that makes the curtest of returns in conclusion. The tenth study, in G-flat, has the title Chant d’amour—“chant de mort”, “song of love—song of death”, an obvious enough pun. Added to this is a Latin tag, when you expect light, there comes darkness. Love in its two forms, perhaps the Greek agape and eros, a reflective Eusebius and more passionate Florestan, are contrasted, their progress interrupted by the metamorphosis into a powerful image of death, finally victorious. The following study, in B major, with its inner melody, chordally accompanied, leads to a final octave study in the unusual metre of 10/16, calling for now familiar technical prowess and ending a work of remarkable variety and virtuosity.

Keith Anderson

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