Alkan’s piano works return after decades of neglect

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 04.12.2013

French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, a member of the Liszt-Chopin circle and one of the most respected piano virtuosos of his day, is back with us after decades of neglect.  The occasion for his return is the 200th anniversary of his birth, and two striking CDs of his compositions have been recently released as a tribute.

Music commentators disagree on Alkan’s worth. He was described by Hans von Bulow as “the Berlioz of the piano” while others, including a Paris radio commentator just this week, find him “vacuous and uninspired, not at all in the Liszt-Chopin league”.  The Frenchman ended by saying “I don’t like him.” 

Personally, I need about ten hearings of any new composer before I can make up my mind, and these two pianists, Allessandro Deljavan and Pascal Amoyel, rewarded me with many arresting passages.  Alkan’s music got better and better as he settled into my mind. But I would say that both extremes of commentary have a point. He can be as sharp and musical as Berlioz and at times he can be as vacuous and uninspired as a mediocre artist.

Amoyel’s advice is blunt and straightforward. He writes in his liner notes: “If you are only half-hearted about Alkan’s music, it’s better not to play it.  It requires a huge musical, physical and intellectual investment. This is undoubtedly why his music is performed so rarely today.” 

Deljevan passes no judgment but observes that playing Alkan is no easy task. It requires “dazzling virtuosity, extreme velocity, enormous leaps at speed, long stretches of repeated notes and widely spaced contrapuntal lines”. All that is true.

The selections from Alkan’s large output are completely different on these two CDs but each has its separate appeal. 

Deljevan, the young Italian who created a stir at the recent Cliburn Piano Competition by being prematurely ejected, has tackled in his album “Alkan” (Piano Classics) the most challenging of the Alkan oeuvre, the Grandes Etudes, which include parts for left-hand only and parts for the right hand, plus, of course, most of the work calling for both hands.

The influences of Chopin – particularly the Nocturnes – and Liszt are evident, along with echoes of Beethoven in the first Etude, the left-handed Fantaisie. Dense chords and rapid virtuoso runs highlight the etudes, forcing the listener to strain to take it all in. 

In Deljevan’s hands, the effort is worth it. He has such a musical touch that any music – even Alkan’s – is made to sound romantic and supple.

Amoyel’s CD (La Dolce Volta LDV 11, distributed by Harmonia Mundi) opens with the Nocturne Opus 22 that draws upon John Field as much as Chopin. The inspiration is strikingly obvious and Amoyel, an outstanding Chopin player, is at home here. His liner notes point out a player’s difficulties with Alkan’s scores. “Sometimes, he writes, “certain passages do not seem playable, there are so many notations on the score.” 

Amoyel did not avoid the most daunting works, featuring the Grande Sonate Opus 33 and the charming Esquisses, opus 63. But the track that impressed me most was the “strange and extraordinary” Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer, opus 31 No. 8.  This extract from Alkan’s 25 preludes casts a gloomy spell with its lugubrious, heavy bass combined with an eerie melody in the upper register.

Amoyel says Alkan’s music is for the inquisitive, atypical keyboard artist. I would say the same goes for the listener, and thankfully there are many of us out there.

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