ALKAN: 12 Études in the minor keys, Op. 39. 3 Morceau dan la genre pathétique. Marches Opp. 26 & 27. Grande Sonate, “Les Quatre Âges.” 3 Petits Fantaisies. Minuetto. Capriccio alla soldatesca. Le tambour bat aux champs. Sonatine, Op. 61. Esquisses, Op. 63 No. 49. Grande Étude, Op. 76, No. 3. Petit Prélude. Prélude, Op. 31/8, “Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore” / Vincenzo Maltempo, pn / 2 Petits Pièces. 3 Grandes Études, Op. 76 / Alessandro Deljavan, pn / Chants, Op. 65, Nos. 5 & 6. Chant Op. 67, No. 2. Les Mois Op. 74, Nos. 1, 10, 12 / Stanley Hoogland, pn / Variations sur un thème de Steibelt. Rondeau chromatique. Alleluia, Op. 25. 25 Préludes in the major and minor Keys. Impromptus, Op. 32. Salut, cendre du pauvre. 49 Esquisses, Op. 63. Super flumina Babylonis / Laurent Martin, pn / 3 Menuets, Op. 51. Une fusée. Nocturnes, Op. 57, Nos. 2 & 3. Sonatine Op. 61 / Constantino Mastroprimiano, pn / 12 Études in the major keys / Mark Viner, pn / Nocturne, Op. 22 No. 1. Chants Op. 38a Nos. 1, 5 & 6 / Alan Weiss, pn / Grand Duo Concertante, Op. 21. Sonate de concert, Op. 47. Trio in G min. / Trio Alkan / 3 Concerti di Camera, Op. 10 (reconstructed by François Luguenot). 3 Scherzi de bravoure. 3 Variations on Donizetti’s “Ah, segnata e la mia” from Anna Bolena, Op. 16, No. 4. Variations on Bellini in G, Op. 16, No. 5. Variations quasi fantaisie sur une barcarolle Napolitaine, Op. 16, No. 6 / Giovanni Bellucci, pn; Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto; Roberto Forés-Veses, cond / 13 Prières, Op. 64. Impromptu sur un choral de Luther. Petits Préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant / Kevin Bowyer, org / Brilliant Classics 95568 (13 CDs)
One day in the early 1880s, a piano student at the Paris Conservatoire was heading towards the rehearsal room when he heard a phenomenally gifted pianist playing there. Walking in, he saw an old man of about 70 with long white hair and a beard. The man turned to him with a smile and said, “Hello! I am Charles-Valentin Alkan, and now I am going to play for you Beethoven’s great Op. 110 sonata.” And he did, with superb technique and musicianship, much to the student’s amazement.
The student was amazed because he had never even heard of him.
When Alkan died in 1888 at age 74, he provoked one of the strangest obituaries ever published: “Charles-Valentin Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence.” A man who had once been such a celebrated and in-demand pianist that even Franz Liszt was nervous to play in his presence had become such a recluse over the last 40 years of his life (with only occasional forays back into concertizing) that people simply forgot about him. Eventually, except for his two close friends César Franck and Ferdinand Hiller, with whom he did indeed socialize, they forgot he had even lived. For nearly a century, an urban legend grew up that Alkan, who spent hours studying the Talmud and the Bible, died reaching for the former at the top of his bookcase (orthodox Jewry dictates that the Talmud must not have any book higher on the shelf than it) but that the bookcase fell on and crushed him. Sadly, the reality was more prosaic. He suffered a stroke in his kitchen, grabbing onto a coat rack for support which fell on him, and cried out for help. When they found him he was breathing laboriously but still alive. He died in his bed a few hours later.
And when he died, he left behind the reputation of a man who wrote gargantuan, “unplayable” music (when he and his friend Chopin played together, at two pianos or one piano four hands, the Polish pianist-composer could scarcely keep up with him), and that was how it stayed until British pianist Ronald Smith recorded his Concerto for Solo Piano in the late 1940s, a performance of which I was unaware (you can stream it on YouTube). Then, in 1953, American pianist Raymond Lewenthal, building a good name and reputation for himself, was attacked by three thugs in New York’s Central
Park and had both hands and arms broken. His life in ruins, he spent seven years slowly healing and rebuilding his technique, bit by painful bit, and in that interim he ran across the mind-boggling scores of Alkan. Upon his return to the concert stage he decided to become the champion of several neglected composers, but Alkan in particular. WBAI in New York broadcast his two-hour concert-lecture on Alkan; someone at RCA Victor heard it and offered him a recording contract, and the really big Alkan Revival was underway in earnest. He dressed in 19th-century Gothic clothing (possibly inspiring the vampire-and-werewolf soap opera Dark Shadows), playing Alkan, Moscheles, Hummel, Scharwenka, Reubke and Dussek by candlelight to delighted audiences in both New York and London. Lewenthal received an award from the French government for championing a composer that even they had forgotten.
By the time of Lewenthal’s death in 1988 he himself had become a recluse due to ill health. Only a few hardy souls were playing and recording Alkan then, among them Bernard Ringeissen, but it took Canadian Marc-André Hamelin to fully revive his music once again in the 1990s. Since then Alkan has been an occasional visitor to the concert hall, generally by super-virtuosi like Hamelin and Vincenzo Maltempo, the latter of whom plays a goodly amount of this set. And this brings us to this cornucopia of Alkan.
Not everyone is enamored of Alkan, to say the least. One critic, whose name I have blissfully forgotten, called his music “a charnel-house of notes.” While it is true that Alkan’s music is among the most note-filled in history, rivaling the scores of Liszt and Sorabji, I find it endlessly fascinating due to his continually original and imaginative treatment of themes and variants. You never know where Alkan is going at any given moment, and his almost inexhaustible fund of ideas contain such things as hands moving in contrary motion, continual crossed-hand passages in which it sounds like two pianists playing, and daring harmonic leaps that were close to 70 years ahead of their time. Whether you buy into his aesthetic or not, Alkan was obviously a visionary whose mind never stopped inventing. Indeed, when one considers that his music became ever more complex, futuristic and interesting during his long periods of retirement from performing, I would say that it was necessary for him to cut himself off from the world in order to create. The concierge of his apartment building was paid to tell anyone who asked for him that “Monsieur Alkan is not in,” even if they could hear him banging the piano behind the door to his rooms, yet when he felt like it he would go out and socialize or, as in the case of the opening story in this review, play the piano for anyone who happened to wander by.
But taking in this much Alkan requires time and patience. Like Art Tatum, Alkan is not a pianist you listen to for casual enjoyment. His music is so dense that you, too, need to cut yourself off from the world around you in order to enter his.
We start our journey here with what is often considered Alkan’s masterpiece, the 12 Études in the minor keys. What looks on the surface like a relatively straightforward collection of piano pieces turns out to be anything but; the 12 Études run something like two hours to play, and include such impossible pieces as Comme le vent, En rhythme molossique, the Scherzo diabolico, Le festin d’Ésope, the nearly 15-minute Ouverture and the 52-minute Concerto for solo piano. Vincenzo Maltempo, who gets the lion’s share of this set (and rightfully so), is clearly one of the best Alkan interpreters of all time. Comparing the works also recorded by Lewenthal (whose RCA Alkan recordings, reissued on CD two decades ago, are indispensable gems), one hears a similar clarity of note-production as well as an irresistible forward pulse. These traits are paramount to a proper representation of this composer, whose mind ran so quickly that his fingers on the keyboard, skilled as they were, could scarcely keep up with his imagination. Comparing Maltempo’s performance of the Concerto pour piano to both Ronald Smith and Hamelin, the only other performances of the complete work I’ve heard, shows the meticulous clarity of the former and the headlong rush of the latter, making his performance, for me, the best of the three. Moreover, he, like Smith, introduces moments of tenderness and relaxation into Alkan’s music whereas Hamelin just plays softly, which is not the same thing. This is not a condemnation of Hamelin; his recording of the Concerto, which appeared in 1992, was such a sensation that it set a new standard, particularly for those who found Smith just a shade too relaxed for this composer (although Smith played with considerable fire). Brilliant Classics was particularly fortunate to obtain his services. Unfortunately, this pressing contains a flaw not found in the original three-disc release (Alkan: Genius-Enigma on Piano Classics), a series of loud clicking noises between 11:53 and 14:00 of the long first movement.
Prior to this release, the only portion of the Grand Sonate, Op. 33 I knew was the second movement, titled “Quasi-Faust,” which was recorded by Lewenthal, but the rest of the sonata is equally fine music if not quite as bizarre. The third movement, for instance, titled “A happy household,” is one of the loveliest things Alkan ever wrote, an utterly charming piece, yet typical of him the music is developed over a long stretch of time (the movement runs 13:14) and within that time-frame he still manages to hold your attention. Likewise the final movement, “Prometheus unchained,” is even slower, moodier and deeper in feeling. I would equate it to some of the finest slow movements in the late Beethoven sonatas, and that is a high compliment indeed. To a certain extent, Lewenthal’s focus on presenting only the most modernistic and outré of Alkan’s pieces created an imbalance. It led listeners to believe that all or most of his output was like that, when in fact the most startling and grotesque music was intermittent. This was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when British pianist Steven Osborne recorded the 48 Esquisses for Hyperion in 2003. Osborne was one of the Alkan-haters; hearing the Symphonie while in college, “I just didn’t ‘get it’ at all and its extreme virtuosity meant I ended up pigeonholing him as an empty showman.” This music is scarcely the product of an empty showman.
Maltempo’s performance of the Sonatine, an 18-minute work that could easily pass for a full-blown sonata by many another composer, is considerably crisper and more exciting than the 1988 recording by Bernard Ringeissen for French Harmonia Mundi, but you need to remember that his was the first time this piece ever appeared on a record, and we were all thrilled to have it at the time. The outré Alkan shows himself particularly in the last movement, where strange harmonic clashes (as at 1:45) remind one of early Stravinsky. The manic perpetuum mobile of the Grande Étude Op. 76, No. 3 is so daunting that I couldn’t even imagine how many hours it must have taken Maltempo to get this music under his fingers!
Pianist Mark Viner plays the much rarer 12 Études in the major keys, no less virtuosic than their minor-key brethren but more Chopinesque in quality. He’s a fine pianist, with fast fingering and good articulation, if less dynamic in forward momentum than Maltempo (I think it has to do with his sense of rhythm being a bit more metronomic). That being said, their less grotesque, more melodic qualities suit his style very well.
If the previous work is somewhat Chopinesque, most of the 49 Esquisses are entirely in that style. In fact, the very odd Menuet (No. 32) bears a slight resemblance to the funeral march in Chopin’s sonata. I’m sure they were influenced by his being Chopin’s neighbor for a considerable amount of time and admiring the Polish composer’s lyrical, appealing style. Laurent Martin, a superb pianist who studied with Germaine Audibert and Pierre Sancan, recorded these works, almost with other pieces by Alkan, for the old Marco Polo label which Naxos eventually bought out. If his playing here is less floated or atmospheric than Osborne, I find it more “Alkan-like” in its clarity and energy. Martin has a sure grasp on the style and makes the Esquisses sound more of an integral part of Alkan’s oeuvre: note, particularly, the clarity and strength of the fugue in No. 6. There are also such unquestionable Alkan touches as the rapidly-shifting chromatic changes in No. 9, “Confidence,” and in No. 10, “Increpatio,” we come face-to-face with the grotesque Alkan, shifting both rhythm and harmony in almost demonic fashion. There are even more typically Alkan-style pieces towards the end of the series, such as No. 41, “Les enharmoniques,” No. 45 “Les diablotins,” and the No. 47 “Scherzetto.” Osborne makes very little of these when compared to Martin.
Martin also plays excerpts from the 25 Préludes in the major and minor Keys, Variations sur un thème de Steibelt. Rondeau chromatique. Alleluia, the Impromptus and Super flumina Babylonis. In all of these he is exemplary in his command of both timing and use of space in the music, but particularly in the 25 Preludes. “La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer,” the song of the madwoman by the ocean, is particularly outstanding. Near the end of the first suite in the 25 Préludes, we hear No. 9, “Placiditas; Tranquillo,” which sounds for all the world like a lullaby written by late Mozart or early Beethoven, immediately followed by the “Dans le style fugue: Très vite,” an almost ferocious perpetuum mobile, which is in turn followed by a Baroque-sounding “Un petit rien.” To this extent, then, Alkan encompassed the whole of classical piano style from the Baroque to the late Romantic, including glimpses of more modern piano music to come. Listen, for instance, to the “Vivace” from the second book of the Op. 32 Impromptus, and you’ll hear a motor rhythm and melodic treatment that sounds as if it were written yesterday.
But of course Alkan, a product of his time, included lots of variations on other composers’ themes—inferior composers like Steibelt and Donizetti as well as superior ones like Mozart and Beethoven. It was just the way things were, the “pops concerts” of their time.
Pianist Alan Weiss plays the nocturne and the Op. 38a Chants. He has a nice style but tend to round off Alkan a bit too much, avoiding the edginess of the music. This was the same way that Bernard Ringeissen played his music back in the 1980s. On the other hand, Alessandro Deljavan has the full measure of Alkan’s style in the two Petits Pièces and three Grandes études, sounding almost like Maltempo. In the midst of Chopinesque music, we suddenly get the first of the 3 Petits Fantaisies, played by Maltempo, which suddenly sounds like Latin music. Alessandro Deljavan, who plays the 3 Grandes études and 2 Petits pièces, also digs into the music much like Maltempo, particularly in the demonic third etude, “Mouvement semblable et perpetual.”
Continuing through the solo piano music we find frequent examples of Alkan’s polyglot tastes and variegated style. His nocturnes, surprisingly, are not at all like those of Chopin or Field, being a bit more wide-awake, yet his Les mois is hypnotic, built around soft motor rhythms. Personally, I wasn’t happy with the duplication of the Sonatine in an alternate performance by Constantino Mastroprimiano, not because his performance is inferior to Maltempo’s but, on the contrary, because it’s so much alike that it doesn’t really add anything. On the other hand, Maltempo’s interpretation of the “Song of the madwoman by the sea” is considerably different from Laurent Martin’s, though to be honest I liked Martin’s version better.
Moving on to his chamber music, we hear Alkan redistributing some of the “impossible” figures he normally required pianists to play by themselves to the violin and/or cello, yet although the violin and cello parts are also virtuosic he did not require them to stretch beyond normal human limitations as he did in his solo keyboard works. Moreover, the Grand Duo Concertant for violin and piano is really quite melodic in the conventional 19th-century sense of the term, despite his adventurous theme developments. I was lucky enough to hear a live performance of his Piano Trio at Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music back in the 1990s, and was somewhat amazed by its lyricism and lack of “Alkan-isms” in its harmonic vernacular. These recordings by Trio Alkan, who consist of violinist Kolja Lessing, pianist Rainer Klaas and cellist Bernhard Schwarz, were made (like Martin’s) for the old Marco Polo label. Brilliant Classics must have leased them from Naxos for this issue, and I’m glad they did as they give his music a different dimension.
I was almost shocked to hear the Concerti da camera because I had never heard anything written by Alkan for piano and orchestra. It turns out that he wrote these in 1832, but the orchestral parts were lost for a very long time so the music was only known in his arrangement for solo piano. The first two are in three parts but linked, as in the case of Weber’s Konzertstück which seems to have been his inspiration for the first of them. The music is indeed Weber-like, with little of Alkan’s famed harmonic audacity and, surprisingly, only intermittently impossible to play; most of it could easily be learned by an intermediate piano student. Apparently this was a time (the early 1830s) when he was trying to appeal to a mass audience. The second one sounds much more like Alkan, with edgier orchestral music and flashier pianism. François Luguenot is credited with having fully reconstructed these scores. They are played by Giovanni Bellucci, who has a lighter, more Chopin-like touch at the keyboard, but this suits them to a T. I really liked the three Scherzi bravoure but could have lived without the variations on a rather punk aria from Donizetti’s equally punk opera, Anna Bolena. Alkan did create something quite interesting out of the Variations on Bellini, and the Variations quasi fantaisie sur une barcarolle Napolitaine take an exceptionally simple tune into complex rhythmic and harmonic territory.
The last disc presents some of Alkan’s organ music as performed by Kevin Bowyer. With its “softer” attack and more diffuse sound, the organ wasn’t really an instrument that Alkan had a great affinity for, thus some of this music sounds more pedantic than his piano scores, yet there are moments of interest where he allowed himself to play in his mind with the music qua music and forget about the instrument as such. Some of the Prières could easily be played as musical preludes to a Christian church service and no one would be the wiser as to who wrote it. Most of them are relatively simple exercises that toodle along, creating a nice atmosphere but little else. Of course, having never heard any of it before, I don’t know how much of this music’s quietude comes from the score and how much comes from Bowyer, with whose work I was unfamiliar. No. 4, marked “Moderato,” is one of the liveliest of them before one gets to No. 8 (“Tempo giusto”) or No. 12 (“Allegretto”), yet No. 5 (“Adagio”) is a long crescendo that builds to fairly exciting climaxes and No. 6 (“Moderato”) is exceptionally virtuosic, calling for his patented two-handed runs at quadruple speed, with audacious shifts of key and odd pauses. Unusually, the final piece, marked “Andantino,” is a jaunty 6/8 tune that I’m not sure would be anyone’s idea of a “prayer.”
The Petits Préludes are just that, a series of very brief pieces, some running only about a half minute, which gives lie to the fact that everything Alkan wrote was a monstrosity. They are, in fact, charming and well-crafted pieces. The organ set, and the collection in general, ends with one of his most impressive pieces, the Impromptu sur le choral de Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The variations therein range from harmonically adventurous to chipper to moody, with Alkan redistributing rhythms and accents, at one point completely rewriting the hymn as something that almost resembles a saltarelle overlaid on a 4/4 beat. At another point he has the right hand, in a particularly soft, “buzzy” registration, playing the hymn melody while the left plays strange chromatic swirls around it. Even weirder, it wraps up with a multitonal mélange of sound that leads into the organist playing one key in the left hand and another in the right. Wild!
This whole set is selling at Presto Classical for $35.50 and $39.52 at Europadisc, which is a steal (Amazon, for some strange reason, is charging almost $60). If you are fan of Alkan or have an interest in outstanding 19th-century piano music, you can’t afford to pass this one up.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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