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8.555496 - ALKAN: Esquisses, Op. 63
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Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)

Esquisses, Op. 63 (Quarante-huit motifs)

The name of Alkan was once joined with those of 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 Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society.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 first 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 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 bookcase fell on him. Whether or not he died clutching a copy of the Talmud, retrieved from the top shelf of the collapsing bookcase, is open to doubt. The story emphasizes, 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 complied 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 initiés and a succeeding text-book Fughette, stretto, pedal-point and all. Le frisson moves, with its fanciful title, to a romantic world, with underlying menace, while Pseudo-naïveté seems to lack the implicit irony of its title. Confidence suggests at first a Mendelssohn Song without Words in form and texture before moving subtly through different and unexpected keys, but Increpatio lurches into a very different mood of bitter rebuke and menace, dissolved with the sighs of Les soupirs, suggesting in delicacy of nuance the palette of Debussy. The little Barcarollette, with its perverse choice of time-signature, 18/8, sets a melody against a softly heard accompaniment and 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. The lively counterpoint of No. 14, Duettino, suggesting Rameau, is followed by an ironic glance at a neo-Baroque Tutti de Concerto dans le genre ancien and a Fantaisie in the virtuoso style of the Paris school of pianists, the display of young Liszt and Kalkbrenner. In contrast is the Baroque Petit Prélude for three voices and the infinite variety of the sketches continues with a little song without words, Liedchen, and the charming Grâces. The village musicians of Petite marche villageoise show considerable enterprise in harmony and there is a premonition of Satie in the choice of title and form of Morituri te salutant, Those 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. Innocenza is ingenuous enough, interrupted by the clumsy clogs of L’homme aux sabots. The cheerful and brightly-coloured Contredanse is succeeded by a catch-as-catch-can Poursuite, the melancholy little song Petit air and a version of the traditional dance, the Rigaudon. Inflexibilité demonstrates strict Baroque intransigence, a contrast to the romantic madness of Délire. The poignant song, Petit air dolent, with its telling postlude, leads to Début de quatuor, a quartet opening, with appropriate touches of counterpoint. A sombre Minuettino is lightened by a livelier and more cheerful central Trio that returns briefly in the coda. Fais Dodo, Go to sleep, in nursery language, is of the genre of Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood, a contrast again in mood to Odi profanum vulgus et arceo, a tag from Horace that seems to accord with the style of life chosen by Alkan, providing a chorale. Musique militaire has its soldiers in energetic frame of mind. It is followed by a little Toccata, again given a diminutive form, Toccatina, a tour de force, and a miniature Scherzo, dubbed Scherzettino. Calm returns with Les bons souhaits, Good Wishes, its obvious benevolence followed by a curious picture of two contrasted figures, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, for whom everything was in a state of flux, and the Epicurean atomist philosopher Democritus, in argument together in Héraclite et Démocrite. Attendez-moi sous l’orme, Wait for me under the elm-tree, suggests a tryst, while the twists of harmony in Les enharmoniques are prophetic in their musical language. Petit air is of disarming simplicity and the Notturnino - innamorato a melodically irregular Mendelssohnian barcarolle. The impetuous Transports gives way to the diablerie of Les diablotins, the little devils, with its tone-clusters, interrupted by the mock solemnity of passages marked quasi santo and quasi santa. Le premier billet doux, the first love-letter, is of ingenuous simplicity, its air of innocence dispelled in the following Scherzetto and its contrasting Trioletto with something of the texture of Beethoven’s piano-writing. En songe, dreaming, restores the serenity of the opening vision, until its brusque conclusion. The postscript, Laus Deo, Praise to God, is introduced by the tolling of the bells, followed by a solemn chorale, ending as the bells return in brief conclusion.

Keith Anderson

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