'Hamelin’s playing is not only mind-blowingly virtuosic but powerfully ardent and touchingly sensitive to boot. Absolutely not to be missed!' (www.bn.com)
'This quite exceptional recording confirms Marc-André Hamelin as the greatest living exponent of Alkan’s music … spontaneous, inspirational playing in which the architecture of each work, phrasing, astonishing accuracy and articulation, and the full use of the tonal resources of the instrument combine to illuminate these extravagant scores as never before' (International Record Review)
'Hamelin has no equal as an interpreter of Alkan; he inhabits the overheated world of this strange proto-Lisztian figure with a completeness that combines a total mastery of its fearsome technical challenges with an innate understanding of its sometimes elusive emotional content' (The Guardian)
'Marc-André Hamelin puts us further in his debt with another superbly played disc of Alkan … [the Symphony’s] big-boned, exorbitantly taxing writing draws appropriately stunning pianism from Hamelin' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Ear-boggling … Another self-recommending discographic coup. What next? I'm all ears' (Fanfare, USA)
Alleluia Op 25 [2'40]
Le vent [7'24]
Marc-André Hamelin's first solo Alkan recording () met with the most superlative critical reception imaginable (culminating in Fanfare magazine's "one of the best releases of anything to have been made, a classic of the recorded era"). This follow-up proves to be no less spectacular.
The disc is framed by two of the 'monster' works for which Alkan is notorious. The four movements of the Symphony for solo piano are taken from his magnum opus, the 12 Studies in the minor keys Op 39. This piece has become one of Alkan's best known but never has its finale (once described as a 'ride in hell') been so spectacularly thrown off. The Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique are the earliest pieces in which Alkan's true personal style became apparent. These are three massive studies each with programmatic titles and an atmosphere of Gothic horror that requires a supreme virtuoso to tackle their outlandish technical demands. This is their first recording.
The recital is completed by three pieces of rather religious inspiration. While their scale and technical demands are those of a more conventional composer, their quirky sound-world and often sardonic mood confirm the composer as our reclusive Frenchman.
Other recommended albums
Published by S Richault in 1837, Alkan’s Douze Grands Caprices ou Etudes—also titled Douze Caprices or Etudes-Caprices—comprise four groups of three pieces each, Opp 12, 13, 15 and 16. They constitute the composer’s first truly personal composition. Then aged twenty-four, he had previously published nothing more than a few glitzy but unremarkable pieces, with the exception, perhaps, of the two Concertos da camera. The 1830s marked the first real pinnacle of his career, which was to be destroyed in 1839, probably as the result of the birth of an illegitimate son—E-M Delaborde. The twelve Caprices bear witness to the musician’s private exploits and illustrate the way in which he seemed to be forever amassing problems in his life. According to Ronald Smith, these pieces mark the emergence of their author’s style: a mood of gloom and obsession, rhythmic fireworks, a taking-over of the entire keyboard, and an intense virtuosity—all features which Alkan would later incorporate into his works in a much more skilful, sparing and inspired manner. Throughout the course of the four sets of pieces, a great variety of moods is to be found: the Trois Improvisations dans le style brillant (Op 12) are brief, brilliant, and a little superficial; the Trois Andantes romantiques (Op 13) unfold lyrically in an atmosphere which at times seems unrelenting; the Tre Scherzi (Op 16) are overflowing, at times almost overladen, with extraordinary rhythmic effects. As for Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique (Op 15), this collection contains the longest pieces, the most deliberately romantic, the most difficult to play, and the only ones to have been given individual titles.
What is the significance of these titles? Britta Schilling-Wang is inclined to believe that they have a religious dimension (particularly ‘Aime-moi’ and ‘Morte’), although one might also choose to see in them a profane programme similar to that of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a kind of ‘moving memories of an artist’s life’. The fact that the main theme of ‘Aime-moi’ returns at the end of ‘Morte’ would seem to reinforce the cohesiveness of the collection, leading one to suspect that the work was intended as a continuous whole rather than as a set of extractable, individual pieces.
The Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathétique were at the centre of a controversial discussion about programme music. As such, they were ‘shot down’ in 1838 by Schumann, whose vitriolic review later annoyed Alkan a great deal and seemed to him, more than anything, to be an illustration of the German’s lack of understanding of the Frenchman’s aesthetics. Schumann’s criticism warrants extensive quotation:
One need cast no more than a cursory glance over this collection to get the picture of this Neo-Frenchman’s taste: it smacks of Eugene Sue and G Sand. One finds oneself similarly gripped by the lack of art and real life. At least Liszt caricatures intelligently; and Berlioz, in spite of all his aberrations shows signs from time to time of having a human heart; he’s a libertine, full of strength and daring. But here we find little more than frailty and a vulgarity devoid of any imagination. The studies have titles—‘Aime-moi’, ‘Le vent’ and ‘Morte’—and are distinguished throughout their fifty pages by a deluge of notes and a lack of even the slightest indication of performance markings; one cannot blame the capriccio itself for this, especially as we know, in any case, how to play this kind of piece; but in this instance, where the inner futility of the work sparkles alongside its apparent emptiness, what more could we expect? In ‘Aime-moi’, we have an uninspiring French melody and then we digress in ways which have absolutely nothing to do with the title; in ‘Le vent’, there is a chromatic moaning over a theme from Beethoven’s Symphony in A major; and in the last piece we are faced with an endless boredom out of which nothing ever emerges except images of wood and sticks and strangulation, this latter idea being borrowed, what is more, from Berlioz.
We may choose to protect talent when it loses its way, but there has to be some kind of demonstration of musicianship; if even that becomes questionable and if we can no longer make out anything more than layers of darkness beneath darkness, then we are forced to turn our backs, unmoved.
One might have expected more perception from Schumann who himself had just written a set of variations on the theme of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, those variations being peppered with quotations from works by the deaf master. As for the idea ‘borrowed from Berlioz’, this relates quite simply to the ‘Dies irae’, a theme composed appreciably earlier than the Symphonie fantastique!
But in answer to this ‘public execution’, the Trois Morceaux also drew a complimentary appraisal from Franz Liszt, to whom the work is dedicated. The review which Liszt wrote is doubly important since it is the best evidence we have of the relationship between these two great piano masters. We know that the two artists knew, and sometimes spoke quite highly of, each other, but very few illustrations of this have survived. In an historically significant treatise, Alexandre de Bertha wrote: ‘Alkan told me on a number of occasions how distressed he was when he first heard the young Franz Liszt play and, noticing Liszt’s already stunning virtuosity, felt immediately relegated to the shadows. He had shed tears of frustration over this throughout the entire performance and had been unable to sleep a wink the following night. This was a little adolescent “brainstorm” which didn’t prevent the two momentary rivals from forming a good relationship at a later date. That friendship was to last until the death of the “King of Piano” who, throughout his life, never missed an opportunity to visit his old-time friend when staying in Paris.’
In January 1836 Liszt, who was teaching piano at the newly established Geneva Conservatoire, had to find a replacement for Wolff who had been acting as his assistant. He offered the post to Alkan who turned it down. That Liszt should have considered taking on his French colleague to teach at his side would seem to be a sign of exceptional respect. Furthermore, there is a copy of the score of Alkan’s Impromptu sur le Chorale de Luther (Op 69) containing a dedication to the Hungarian pianist: ‘To Abbé Liszt from his old and elder friend Alkan, 6/5/66’. And yet, in his letters to Ferdinand Hiller in the 1850s, the French musician cannot resist passing comment on the Hungarian’s aesthetic evolution and on 17 December 1865 writes: ‘What do you think of the way our old friend Liszt is going off in a new direction? For my part, if I ever become a rabbi, I will never accept the post of music master in the synagogue, but will put on my rabbi’s robes with total disinterest; but if it was once worth a man’s while to convert to Catholicism in order to gain sovereignty over Paris, then perhaps it is worth donning a cassock in order to gain directorship of the choir school of St Peter’s’.
In 1837 all this was still in the future of course, and Liszt’s opinion of Alkan is notably more laudatory than Schumann’s. He affirms at once that: ‘Monsieur Alkan’s capriccios, which I have read and re-read many times since the day when they first gave me such a sweet sense of joy, are as distinguished as any composition could be, and, all bias of friendship aside, are the sort of music which should awaken great interest amongst musicians’.
‘Aime-moi’, in A flat minor, opens with a beautiful melodic phrase of a truly Chopinesque Romanticism. The dialogue grows increasingly lively, the writing quickly becoming immensely difficult, such that Ronald Smith was moved to write that certain passages were seemingly written for an extinct race of seven-fingered pianists!
Whilst it is scarcely ever played these days, ‘Le vent’ was for a long time quite a popular work—so much so that Sorabji wrote that it was ‘too familiar one is tempted to say, for most people think of Alkan, indeed only know him, as the composer of “Le Vent”, as they know only the Sibelius of the Valse Triste or Finlandia’. For Liszt’s taste, ‘Le vent’ ‘is the most Romantic of the three. By means of an uninterrupted explosion of chromatic semiquavers, the composer has managed wonderfully to bring to life the effects of those sustained winds which blow for days on end, making the forest heather and grasses moan monotonously. One can almost hear the rain trickling down the oak trees’ trunks, and, in great reverence, one can listen to the tune which floats above all these subdued murmurings, like the song of the lover or the poet as he looks upon Nature’s sorrow yet without feeling that sadness in himself because he holds in his heart the gentle glow of a memory or a hope’. Larry Sitsky adds: ‘A “normal” Romantic would seize the opportunity for whipping up a veritable gale; in Alkan’s piece, the rise and fall of the wind is monotonously regular, the melody heard through it pathetic rather than heroic’. (Alkan was to come back to this meteorological theme in the first of the twelve Etudes dans tous les tons mineurs Op 39, entitled ‘Comme le vent’—a work which in Sorabji’s opinion was far less successful.) The score is pretty striking in itself: the page is dominated by a huge pile-up of notes—repetitive scales of demisemiquavers—and the visual impact is almost as striking as the impact the music makes as sound. We have the same sort of effect in some of Chopin’s Etudes. The middle section is undoubtedly the most lyrical and the most beautiful; the combination of tremolos and chromatic scales flashing in the left hand evokes Chasse-neige, the last of Liszt’s Etudes d’exécution transcendante, without giving us a clue as to who influenced whom.
‘Morte’, in E flat minor, is the most premonitory of the three works. Sorabji believes that this is the ‘most remarkable piece of the collection … “Morte” is a moving and tragic elegy, a funereal song, in which the composer introduces the Dies irae, that marvellous theme which has for so long haunted and fascinated so many of the great masters of music. The work is bursting with extraordinary daring—technical, pianistic and harmonic—and its close is as weirdly uncanny as it is audacious and original’. In contrast to Sorabji’s words, it is this third piece that finds Liszt at his most scathing: ‘In the ensemble of this piece, which contains some truly lovely things, it seemed to us that M Alkan had too little concern for detail. The transition passages, thrown like bridges between one idea and another […] have been somewhat neglected. It is evident that the composer views them as being of mediocre importance. And that is a mistake. One should never assume that certain sections will benefit through a neglect of others’.
On listening to the work, however, this criticism seems somewhat ill-fitting. The music begins with bare fifths in the piano’s lower register, and then the theme of Dies irae comes soaring over the top, until a savage torrent of chords adds a certain violence to the desolation. There follows a magnificent lament, leading into a florid cadence, and then on to a passage in which a repetitive B flat uncannily heralds ‘Le Gibet’ from Gaspard de la nuit by Ravel—who was familiar with Alkan’s music. The next section, which Liszt labelled ‘Presto finale’, is a violent expression of revolt and exasperation which then returns to the mood of despair with which the piece began. ‘Morte’ certainly reminds one of music by Berlioz, Mussorgsky and Ravel – but it equally well heralds the best of Alkan’s compositions still to come: ‘Prométhée enchaîné’ from the Grande Sonate, Op 33, La Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer from the Preludes, Op 31, Le Tambour bat aux champs, Op 51 No 2, for example.
The absence of any indication of performance markings in the score could be regarded as a sort of homage to the person to whom it was dedicated. It does not help the task of the interpreter. In general, this collection represents a gauntlet thrown down to all pianists. Raymond Lewenthal rightly insisted on the need to play Alkan’s music strictly a tempo at the designated speeds and with total conviction, since this is not music which comes to life simply by reading it. Rather than taking the view of Ronald Smith, who claims that the technical expertise required to play Opus 15 is disproportionate to the musical rewards, let us listen to Marc-André Hamelin who, in his true re-creation of the work, takes initiatives which transform these pages.
Alleluia, Op 25, appeared in 1844 in the Central Bureau of music. Alkan had been back on the scene for about a year and he seems to have written the work at the time of a concert given in the Salons Erard on 20 April 1844. Although it was conceived as a concert piece, Opus 25 takes us into a religious dimension which is ever present in the music of its maker. Let us remember that ‘alleluia’ means ‘Praise ye the Lord’, an exclamation which Alkan joyously highlights in this work which peals with enthusiasm and fervour.
We continue in a religious vein with Super flumina Babylonis, Op 52, which was published in 1859 by Richault. The title is from Psalm 137 and the original edition is embellished with a translation into French of the Hebrew poem. Comparing this version with a dozen other translations available in Alkan’s time, the Domenican brother Michel Albaric draws some irrefutable conclusions: the text is unedited, but it has a strongly Protestant or perhaps Jewish flavour (containing as it does words like ‘The Eternal’ and the use of the familiar rather than formal word for ‘you’). This leads one to suppose that the translation is Alkan’s own. And so we have a remnant of the complete translation of the Bible which Alkan admitted to having made but which he undoubtedly destroyed. He wrote, for example, to Ferdinand Hiller on Saturday 21 August 1858: ‘Moreover, I’m still doing my Semitic Studies, as you call them, my dear, mocking friend. I mean by that that I copy out and translate three or four verses every day. Now, as the days have been adding up, I have thus already done more than three quarters of the Bible for my own use. I try my hand too, sometimes, at translating bits of poetry; though, after great effort, I often have to give up on this. For want of other forms of pleasure, at least I have the pleasure of sometimes finding that other peoples’ efforts are even less fruitful than my own; although they are at least managing to publish theirs’. And on Thursday 3 January 1861 he wrote: ‘And as you were asking about my translation of the Bible, I will tell you that I’ve finished all the canonical books, and I’m now on to the Apocrypha. I’m finishing Ecclesiastes, and I’ll be starting Baruch next, God willing. It’s about the only thing that I do with any regularity, as well as my studies. Which is to say that I’m not doing anything of much worth, since this translation will have served no more than to stop me from admiring the translations of others: except perhaps Luther’s’. And to add to this extraordinary confession: ‘There are times when, if I had to start my life all over again, I would love to set the whole of the Bible to music, from the first word to the very last’. On 30 May 1865 he made a confession which is quite astounding for a practising Jew: ‘In beginning to translate the New Testament, I immediately had a strange feeling: It was that it seemed to me that in order to truly understand it, one has to be a Jew’.
Musically, Super flumina Babylonis is a striking work in which Alkan represents the psalm quite faithfully. There are three sections to the piece: firstly a ‘Quasi Adagio’ in G minor, rich in markings such as ‘lamentevole’, ‘sostenuto in infinito’, ‘suavissimo’; this runs into harp-like effects in the left hand. After several passages of recitative we come to a ‘Vivacissimo’ in C major ‘con energia’; some more harp effects lead to the finale—‘Allegro feroce’ in G minor—in which the mood is one of incredible violence.
Salut, cendre du pauvre!, Op 45, is Alkan’s only work to have been published in 1856. It is a paraphrase of a poem by Gabriel-Marie-Jean-Baptiste Legouve (1764–1812) to which it is difficult to assign any clear identity. As with the previous piece, but within a generally calmer musical landscape, several sections create a juxtaposition of contrasting atmospheres. The piece begins with a number of arpeggios and then goes on to introduce a pregnant theme which then filters through the entire work. There follows a page in a much more funereal mood reminiscent of the Marche funèbre (Op 26) with its obsessive throbbing in the left hand. The piece comes to a calm close with big spread chords.
After the setback when he failed to gain the post of professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire as Zimmerman’s successor, Alkan again began to withdraw more and more from public life. In 1857, Richault brought out an entire collection of exceptional works which included Alkan’s magnum opus, the twelve Etudes dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39, dedicated to the Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis, who wrote: ‘this work is a real epic for the piano’. The huge collection sums up all the composer’s pianistic and compositional daring and it comprises some of his most famous works, none more so, perhaps, than Le Festin d’Esope, a set of variations which completes the cycle. We find here the famous Concerto for solo piano, of which the first movement alone is one of the great monuments of the piano repertoire, and the Symphony for solo piano, which constitutes studies 4 to 7 and is written on a far more ‘reasonable’ scale.
The lack of cohesion which might result from the progressive tonality of its four movements is compensated for by the many skilfully concealed, interrelated themes, all examined in great detail by several writers, among them being Larry Sitsky and Ronald Smith. One could discuss ad infinitum the orchestral quality of pianistic writing, particularly in the case of composers like Alkan and Liszt who, moreover, made numerous successful transcriptions. Harold Truscott seems to sum up the matter very well in saying that what one labels ‘orchestral’ within piano music is most often ‘pianistic’ writing of great quality applied to a work of huge dimensions which on further investigation turns out to be extremely difficult to orchestrate.
Jose Vianna da Motta found just the right words to describe the vast first movement of this symphony: ‘Alkan demonstrates his brilliant understanding of this form in the first movement of the Symphony (the fourth Study). The structure of the piece is as perfect, and its proportions as harmonious, as those of a movement in a symphony by Mendelssohn, but the whole is dominated by a deeply passionate mood. The tonalities are so carefully calculated and developed that anyone listening to it can relate each note to an orchestral sound; and yet it is not just through the sonority that the orchestra is painted and becomes tangible, but equally through the style and the way that the polyphony is handled. The very art of composition is transformed in this work’.
The second movement consists of a Funeral March in F minor, rather Mahlerian in style. In the original edition the title page read ‘Symphonie: No 2. Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Uomo da bene’, words which have sadly been lost in all subsequent editions. Of course one is reminded of the subtitle of the ‘Marcia funebre’ in Beethoven’s third symphony. But might we not regard this ‘uomo da bene’ as Alkan’s father, Alkan Morhange, who died in 1855, two years before these studies were published?
The Minuet in B flat minor is in fact a scherzo that anticipates shades of Bruckner—full of energy and brightened by a lyrical trio. The final Presto in E flat minor, memorably described by Raymond Lewenthal as a ‘ride in hell’, brings the work to a breathless close.
The Symphony does not contain the excesses of the Concerto or the Grande Sonate. But, rather like the Sonatine Op 61, it proves that Alkan was also capable of writing perfectly balanced and almost ‘Classical’ works.
François Luguenot © 2001