About this Recording
8.223657 - ALKAN: Piano Music

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–1888)
Piano Music


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 Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society.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

Alkan’s set of four Impromptus was completed in 1848, works making no great technical demands. Vaghezza, the first, is an attractive piece, followed by L’amitié, suggesting some confidence in the masculine friendship of the title. The third Impromptu is a Fantasietta alla moresca, its Moorish element represented by the necessary melodic contours, asymmetric rhythms and repetitive accompaniment patterns to give the character suggested in the title. La foi, “Faith”, is a more extended piece, opening with a bold declaration and continuing in similar vein, until a more sinister and mysterious element emerges in the central section, increasing in complexity with the addition of an ostinato cross-rhythm to an already repeated pattern.

A second set of Impromptus appeared in the following year. The curious rhythmic character of these is evident in the title. The first three are in five time, based on the rhythm of the Basque zorcico, opening with amore extended piece, followed by a gentle Allegretto and the cross-rhythms of a livelier third. Each of these three pieces uses a different pattern of accentuation. The last of the set is a further rhythmic experiment, now in seven time, asymmetrically explored generally in a bar division of four equal notes followed by a longer note to a count of three, but often, as he later realised, giving the impression of a 6/8 rhythm, with a slight lengthening of the last note.

Salut, cendre du pauvre!, “Hail, ashes of the poor!”, was written in 1856, a year after Alkan’s father’s death and a year before a remarkable increase in his creativity as a composer. The piece opens ominously enough, leading almost at once into a chorale, interrupted by the initial threatening figure. The optimism of the hymn-like melody is developed, over a repeated chordal accompaniment. The menacing minor key returns, with a repeated drum-beat in the lower register, slowing and then coming to a halt, before the resumption of the hymn of hope and an effective use of the lower register of the instrument, from which the music ascends to the height in arpeggiated chords.

Alleluia, written in 1844, explores the effect of massive chords and a wide range of the piano. Repeated chords in the higher register are set against octaves and full chords in the lower, and the piece ends with the sonorous use of both elements.

Alkan wrote his Rondeau chromatique in 1833 at a time when he was making his early reputation as a virtuoso pianist in a city of virtuosi. The rondeau is, in consequence, a work of more conventional brilliance, lacking the curious irregularities and originalities of later work. It remains an effective composition within the limits of contemporary style.

Alkan’s Variations on a Theme from Steibelt’s Orage Concerto is an even earlier work, written in 1828, when the composer was fifteen. The German pianist and composer Daniel Steibelt, who died in 1823 at the age of fifty-seven, enjoyed a very considerable contemporary reputation in both capacities, slightly marred by defeat in a performance contest with Beethoven in Vienna. His eight piano concertos include a number that carry titles, the third of them, L’orage, “The Storm”, written in 1799. Alkan’s Variations make an interesting re-discovery, a vehicle for technical brilliance that may lack deeper musical substance or the kind of eccentricity and originality later generations have come to expect from the work of Alkan. Once again, within the conventions of the period, they are remarkable testimony to the composer’s ability as a performer and to his clear talent as a creative artist. Super flumina Babylonis, “By the waters of Babylon”, is announced as a paraphrase of Psalm 137, a lament from the years of Jewish captivity. It was written in 1859. The music follows the words and moods of the psalm: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof, for there they that carried us away captive required of us a song, and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”. Alkan’s paraphrase translates the psalm into dramatic musical terms, the whole a reflection of his own interest in the Scriptures. The meditative feeling of the opening, the suggested sound of the harp, gives way to a fiercer second section, with its elements of counterpoint remaining undeveloped. These two elements are again placed in juxtaposition and the paraphrase ends in declared triumph.

Keith Anderson

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