CHARLES-VALENTIN ALKAN (1813 - 1888)
Alkan, born Morhange in Paris in 1813, was among the most gifted piano virtuosi of his time. Much of his life, in particular from 1853 onwards, was spent in eccentric isolation. His remarkable abilities as a pianist, in later years only intermittently displayed, were coupled with an equally remarkable body of keyboard compositions, neglected until recent years. In addition to his musical interests, he maintained his classical and biblical studies, the latter reflecting the Jewish faith into which he had been born and to which he remained loyal throughout his life.
While Alkan’s piano music includes the operatic fantasias and transcriptions fashionable in his time, his more remarkable works must be his virtuosic études, notably the set in all minor keys, Op. 39, containing ‘Scherzo diabolico’, ‘Symphonie’, ‘Concerto’, ‘Ouverture’ and final ‘Le Festin d’Esope’ Variations. The four-movement ‘Symphonie’ includes a sober Marche funèbre. There are preludes in all keys, major and minor, many with idiosyncratic titles; impromptus; études in all major keys; and a set of 48 Esquisses, the last as original as anything else he wrote. Much of Alkan’s piano music makes fierce technical demands on any performer, and the larger works are massive in scale and conception.
Alkan’s compositions are chiefly for piano. A symphony is lost, while a work for wind band remains unpublished. Three piano chamber concertos survive, written in the early 1830s, the third reconstructed from a later adaptation. And a piano concerto has been produced from Nos. 8–10 of the Études, Op 39; these demanding pieces conceived as a ‘concerto’ by Alkan for piano alone were subsequently orchestrated by the conductor Karl Klindworth (to be first performed in 1902).
Alkan’s contribution to chamber music is found in Grand Duo Concertant for violin and piano, Sonate de concert for cello and piano, and a piano trio.