About this Recording
8.223383 - ALKAN: Chamber Music
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Charles Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)
Chamber Music


The extensive works of Charles Valentin Alkan remain largely overshadowed in international concert repertoire. Nevertheless Alkan has had his champions, such as the co-editor of his music, Isidore Philipp (1863–1958) and Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), who regarded him as one of the five greatest composers of piano music after Beethoven, with Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, and shocked the Berlin public with the massive Alkan cadenza for the Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven. Others included the pianists Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943), Harold Bauer (1873–1951) and Egon Petri (1881–1962), who played music by Alkan, although, regrettably, only occasionally. More recently the pianist Raymond Lewenthal (1926–1988) created a sensation with his broadcasts of music by Alkan, while the English pianist Ronald Smith (1922–) remains an almost monomaniac interpreter of Alkan, as head of the London Alkan Society and author of the first monograph on the composer, published in two volumes in 1976, a notable work.

All these efforts, however, have not so far succeeded in bringing about a radical Alkan renaissance. This is partly a matter of conservative musical taste. The generation of virtuosi, piano teachers and gifted amateurs, that, since the middle of the last century, by the constant study and performance of the music of Alkan’s contemporaries Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, has established their works as of lasting cultural value in the eyes of a wider group of people, has failed to mobilise opinion in favour of Alkan. Although he was a great virtuoso of the piano, he gave few concerts, particularly after the year of fate 1848, and consequently had too few pupils of ability and generally led the life of a recluse in his native city of Paris, which he virtually never left. He published his works spasmodically over the years, living the rigorous life of one dedicated to composition.

The fact that Alkan’s works include no symphonies, operas, oratorios or songs excluded him from the usual means in his century of reaching a wider audience. Quite decisive then and now for the general receplion of Alkan’s music is also the uncompromising nature of his piano-orientated creativity, shown in his tendency to short sketches (48 Esquisses, Op. 63), his courage in tackling macro-structures of unheard of length (Etudes up to thirty minutes long), harmonic and formal irony, as it were in the manner of Prokofiev, modernistic motor impetus, as in Le chemin de fer and Allegro barbaro, perplexing banality, an anticipation of Mahler, underlying enigmatic irony, a foretaste of Satie, and, last not least, the sometimes excessive technical demands, greater than the transcendental challenge of Liszt.

The visionary strength of this Quasi-Faust, a movement title in his Piano Sonata Op. 33, is also evident in the three chamber works that Alkan wrote. The first of these, research has established (Harry Halbreich in An Alkan Reader published by Fayard in 1991), was the Trio for piano, violin and bass in G minor, Op. 30. Published in 1841, the work, possibly written sometime earlier, starts Assez largement with a theme of rhythmic energy, which is to be contrasted with a lyrical second subject. The almost continuous flow of semi-quavers is concise, with the transitions between the sections of the movement cleverly hidden. In the middle the thematic material appears in masterly simultaneous polyphony, partly the climax of the development, partly recapitulation in the major. In the Scherzo, also in G minor, there is a rapid and witty exchange between the instruments in contrast with the dark bass melody of the Trio. The G major Lentement offers novelty of formal structure. In the classical simplicity of the four-part string writing abruptly appears a piano cadenza in the manner of Tchaikovsky (Alkan notes, with a wink, “Le violon et le basse comptent”). The introduction is repeated in shorter and intenser form and a short exchange leads to an orchestral tremolo covering the extreme range of the three instruments. The Finale, in 6/8, demands above all of the pianist a tremendous perpetuum mobile. Violin and cello, for the most part in exchange each with the other, propose a motivic and rhythmic counterpoint, until the appearance of the major coda, in which the rapid semiquaver movement is taken up by the strings.

Alkan’s Violin Sonata, the Grand Duo concertant pour piano et violon, in F-sharp minor, Op. 21, was probably written about 1840. The choice of key, F-sharp minor and major and related keys, shows that the composer, who himself also played the violin to some extent, treats the violin as he did the piano, evident too in the particular lay-out of the violin part, with its octaves in the highest positions. The first movement of the sonata offers a contrast between the archaic contour of the opening and the soaring secondary theme in D major, repeated three times, the third time “avec exaltation”. The heart of the work lies, without question, in the slow movement, L’enfer (“Hell”), which offers an unprecedented vision of the darkest abyss. The extreme closely spaced dissonances in the deepest range of the piano create a song of mourning. The brilliant Finale, to be played as fast as possible, fluctuates between a hectic perpetuum mobile and a fragmented and sometimes syncopated melodic outline. Alkan dedicated his Violin Sonata, which is here presented for the first time on compact disc, to the Belgian-born violinist and composer Chrétien Urhan (1790–1845).

Among the cello sonatas of the nineteenth century, after the five by Beethoven written between 1796 and 1815 and Chopin’s Opus 65 of 1845/6 but before the two by Brahms, written in 1865 and 1886, Alkan’s Cello Sonata in E major of 1856, Op. 47, occupies an important position, significant in the development of the form. The arrangement of the string part is as rigorous as that of the violin sonatas, with four homogeneous and complementary movements. The cyclical arrangement of keys, E major, A-flat major, C major and E minor, is striking. The opening Allegro molto, in classical first movement form, starts in singing style. The expansive development section has frequent exchanges of scale passages and a working of motivic detail concentrated often into expressive fugati. The 6/8 Siciliano of the Allegrettino creates an apparently simple bass which, through surprising turns of harmony, offers a degree of uncertainty. In the rich chromaticism there lies a certain sarcasm, typical of Alkan’s humour. The Jewish believer Alkan prefaces the Adagio with a quotation from the Old Testament (Micah V. vii) “As dew from the Lord how the Jewish people endure, awaiting help from God alone”. The gently sentimental cello theme seems to be inspired by Jewish sacred music. A clearly modern rhythmic element appears against the piano cantilena in the plucked notes of the cello. The sonata ends with a virtuoso Finale alla saltarella. Here the technical demands on both players stand alone in the musical literature of the nineteenth century. The Sonata, like the Trio dedicated to James Odier, was first performed by Auguste Franchomme, the dedicatee and first performer of Chopin’s Cello Sonata, and Alkan himself in Paris on 27th April 1857.

Rainer Klass

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