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8.553434 - ALKAN: Railway (The) / Preludes / Etudes / Esquisses

Charles- V alentin Alkan (1813 -1888)

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 -1888)

Preludes Op. 31, Nos. 1, 13, 17 & 25

Impromptus Op. 32 (II), Nos. 1 & 3

Le chemin de fer, Op. 27

Etudes Op. 35, Nos. 6, 8 & 12

Marche funebre: Andantino, Op. 39, No.5

Esquisses Op. 63, Nos. 1- 5, 8, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 32, 38, 43 & 48

Scherzo diabolico, Op. 39, No.3


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 Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society .In recent years there has been a revival of interest in his music, led at the beginning of the twentieth century by Busoni and furthered by other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 Cesar 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 t 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'Orleans. He continued to busy himself as a composer, chiefly for the piano, pub1ishing 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 Troi5 Grandes Etude5 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 estab1ished 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 Zirnmermann 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 fo11owing 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 5ix 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 romantica11y ernbe11ished, it seems probable that he died as the result of a domestic accident, when a cupboard or book-case fe11 on him. Whether or not he died clutching a copy of the Talmud, retrieved from the top shelf of the co11apsing book-case, is open to doubt. The story emphasises, at least, Alkan's religious and literary interests, offering an interesting inverse para11el to the flamboyant career of his contemporary Liszt, tuned Abbe, who had died in lodgings in Bayreuth, attended by one of his young female pupils, in 1886.


The 25 Preludes, Opus 31, in all major and minor keys, appeared in 1847, designed for piano or organ, or, no doubt, for the instrument that Alkan particularly favoured, the pedalier or pianoforte with pedal-board, for which Schumann and Gounod, among others, had written. The Preludes go through f al124 keys, returning to a final Prayerin the affirmative key of C major. The first of the set opens meditatively, while the prelude inspired by the Song of Songs (1 t was asleep, but my heart watched) is mystical in its approach. Reve d'amour r (Dream of Love) is more sensuous in feeling, fo11owed in the present selection by the final Prayer.


Alkan published a first set of Impromptus in 1848, fo11owed in 1849 by a second group, exploring unusual rhythms, with a quintuple time signature, based on the Basquezorcico.


Le chemin de fer, Op. 27, The Railway, was published in 1844, celebrating in musical terms a railway journey, a relative novelty of the period and something that was to provide material over the years for a number of other composers, intrigued by the rhythm of the machine and the whistle of the engine. Railway journeys of this kind presented possible dangers, and of these Alkan is we11 aware, as the train gathers speed, before coming to a halt in safety.


The Douze etudes dans tous les tons majeurs, Opus 35, twelve studies in a11 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 harmonica11y satisfactory .The sixth study ca11s for extreme flexibility of the hand in its octave patterns. 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 enharmomca11y). The E major twelfth study is in the unusual metre of 10/16, ca11ing for now familiar technical prowess and ending a work of remarkable variety and virtuosity.


In 1848 Alkan had published a set of twelve studies in all the major keys. Nine years later appeared its minor counterpart, the Douze etudes, 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.


Alkan compiled his 48 Motifs, sub-titled Esquisses (Sketches), in 1861, the pieces apparently the work of the previous fifteen years and published in four volumes. Esquisses are arranged in a key sequence and open with a dreamy La vision, with elements of gentle operatic recitative. Le staccatissimo recalls some nineteenth century Scarlatti, suggesting the link that Alkan provides between earlier music, and particularly the French clavecinistes and the age of Chopin and Schumann. Le legatissimo offers a contrast in mood and technique and is followed by Les cloches, the opening bell ringing out and leading to the Baroque Les inities. Pseudo-naivete seems to lack the implicit irony of its title. Increpatio moves into a very different mood of bitter rebuke and menace, while Ressouvenir, with its opening solo, proceeds to a more conventional melody with repeated chordal accompaniment, before the re-appearance of the poignant minor opening melody, capped by a final move to the major. Fantaisie is in the virtuoso style of the Paris school of pianists, the display of young Liszt and Kalkbrenner. The infinite variety of the sketches continues with a little song without words, Liedchen. There is a premonition of Satie in the choice of title and form of Morituri te salutant (We who are about to die salute you) with its rising and descending chromatic harmonies more sinister than the turbulent gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome suggested in the title. A sombre Minuettino is lightened by a livelier and more cheerful central Trio that returns briefly in the coda. Calm returns with Les Bons souhaits (Good Wishes), followed hereby Notturnino -innamorato, a melodically irregular Mendelssohnian barcarolle. En songe, dreaming, restores the serenity of the opening vision, until its brusque conclusion.


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. 

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