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Hyperion Records

CDA67377 - Alkan: Esquisses Op 63

Recording details: July 2002
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2003
Total duration: 74 minutes 30 seconds


'A sensitivity, radiance and finesse rarely encountered from even the finest pianists … An invaluable disc' (Gramophone)

'These miniatures call for a pianist of great sensitivity, character and receptiveness to the music’s diverse, perfectly crystallised moods … Osborne is just the man … This is a revelatory disc, and one to cherish' (The Daily Telegraph)

'A major keyboard musician … the music rather than his ego comes first' (The Times)

'Osborne’s playing is breathtaking' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Osborne fulfils his task brilliantly on what will be one of the CD’s of the year' (Liverpool Daily Post)

'This music needs a performer full of freedom, imagination and with great fingers, all of which describes Osborne … I knew that Osborne’s latest offering would be outstanding' (Pianist)

'Having introduced these Esquisses to us, Osborne deserves our gratitude … While they still hold material that will test the pianist, they are often sublime, requiring a performer of the utmost sensitivity, and in Osborne they find the perfect exponent' (Hi-Fi Plus)

'Osborne has a delightfully varied touch that brings out the character, wit and invention of these often exquisite and tantalisingly short and familiar pieces' (The Inverness Courier)

'Un ‘must’ qui complète parfaitement le riche catalogue Hyperion consacré à ce compositeur' (Répertoire, France)

'Le jeune Britannique s’en tire avec les honneurs, par une inventivité sonore de tous les instants et une musicalité attentive aux humeurs suggérées par l’harmonie, et surtout grâce à une technique brillante, qui reste le meilleur moyen de mettre en valeur la variété des formulas d’Alkan' (Diapason, France)

Esquisses Op 63

The renaissance of interest in the reclusive and eccentric 19th-century French composer Alkan has been one of the more interesting developments of the last part of the 20th century but it has usually been his massive and virtuoso works (the symphony and concerto for solo piano for example) which have made the biggest impression. Throughout his life though Alkan was also a miniaturist, as 25 Preludes and six books of Chants show, and this interest culminated in undoubtedly the greatest of these cycles, the Esquisses (sketches) here recorded. This set of 48 pieces plus a final Laus Deo runs through all 24 keys twice with the Laus Deo returning the double cycle to C major. A huge range of mood and colour is represented from simple folk song to etude, not forgetting the bizarre, as can be seen in the tone clusters of Les Diablotins or the schizophrenic Héraclite et Démocrite.

This cycle has only been recorded complete once before. With Steven Osborne applying his colour, virtuosity and interpretive insight we are confident we have produced a recording that will permanently raise the stature of these pieces in the musical world and add a significant milestone in the Alkan discography.

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Charles-Valentin Alkan (his real name was Morhange, but he adopted his father’s first name early in his career) was one of the outstanding French virtuoso pianists of the nineteenth century, and a close friend of Chopin and George Sand, of Bizet and Manet. As a composer he was much admired by Liszt and Busoni, among others. Although Alkan was a prolific miniaturist, he is best known today for such large-scale works as the enormous Concerto for solo piano, and the Symphony (despite its title, likewise written for keyboard alone); or the Grande Sonate: Les quatre âges, whose four movements not only become progressively slower to depict increasing senility, but are all in different keys. This latter characteristic is also true of the Symphony and Concerto, whose individual movements actually form part of a grander scheme: a series of twelve studies—one in each of the minor keys. Alkan had previously composed a series of twelve Études in all the major keys, as well as 25 Preludes in both major and minor keys of the entire tonal spectrum. (The additional number in the latter set is explained by its final return to C major.)

The systematic exploration of keys found in so many of Alkan’s collections of pieces is one that is relevant to his last cycle of miniatures, the Esquisses Op 63. The series consists of 48 pieces—twelve in each of four Books—which go through the gamut of keys twice, in each case using a different scheme. In addition, the fourth Book contains a thirteenth piece which once again brings the music back to C major. (It is curious to note how Alkan, who in so many of his works shows a proclivity for ‘progressive’ tonal schemes in which the music comes to rest in a key different from that of its beginning, defies convention again in his cyclical collections by actually returning to his point of departure. In the Esquisses a further sense of order is imposed: by altering the major-minor pattern of Books I and III, for a scheme in the remaining two Books which has the minor key taking precedence in each pairing, Alkan is able to begin all four Books in C major or minor.)

Alkan’s Esquisses Op 63 appeared in 1861, though it is likely that its individual pieces were composed over a considerable period of time. One of the numbers in the third Book, Délire, was probably the first to come into existence: it exists in a previous version (in D major, rather than the E major of its final form) dated as early as October 1847.

The Esquisses contain a number of étude-like pieces (the second and third numbers of Book I, for instance; or the opening piece of Book III, with its constant semiquaver motion), but the large majority are character-pieces in the tradition—though hardly the style—of Rameau and Couperin. One of the pieces in Book III is a Rigaudon which clearly looks back to those two French Baroque masters, and there are other glances over the shoulder elsewhere in the collection. A few of the numbers seem deliberately to evoke the world of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, but more characteristic of Alkan are the pieces that peer forwards to a much later age. Some of them, indeed, foreshadow the Expressionist world of Mussorgsky, or the extraordinarily elliptical harmonic language of late Liszt.

The German-born musician Friedrich Niecks (Donald Francis Tovey’s predecessor as Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University) heard Alkan play music by Mendelssohn and Bach, as well as some of his own works, when the composer was in his late sixties. ‘Of his truly masterly playing I remember this’, Niecks wrote in the Monthly Musical Record of January 1918. ‘It was free from any kind of extravagance and of over-accentuation of his individuality: loyalty of interpretation seemed to be his chief aim. Firmness, repose, and sobriety in rhythm and dynamics struck me as outstanding features. But the playing was as much distinguished by the clearness of phrasing and the richness of delicate shading, as by the avoidance of the ruse of tempo rubato. The legato element may be said to have been the predominant element.’

Alkan’s legato would have stood him in particularly good stead in the first and third pieces in Book I of Esquisses. The first, La Vision, is to be played aussi chanté et lié que possible. The piece is a dream-like nocturne whose hypnotically repeated left-hand rhythm ceases towards the end, to allow the right hand to spin an unaccompanied line, before the music sinks to a peaceful close in the bass register of the piano. The second piece, Le Staccatissimo, is a scherzo of Mendelssohnian lightness and transparency played piano throughout, until it is abruptly and wittily cut off by a blunt, emphatic cadence. Its counterpart, Le Legatissimo, features smoothly moving lines in regular quaver (eighth-note) motion, with gently pealing sustained notes sounding intermittently from within the texture.

The bell sounds of No 4, Les Cloches, are more specific and insistent, though the piece itself is among the shortest in the collection. Its ending is inconclusive, with the simultaneous sounds of G minor (the home key) and B flat major fading away into the distance. The following number has no title, but is prefaced by some lines spoken by the chorus in the second scene of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, with their reference to ‘the sweet dance, the graced rose-ritual in places secret fair’. The piece is in old-fashioned contrapuntal style (‘Quasi-coro’ is Alkan’s marking), though it unfolds almost in the manner of a sonata movement, with a miniature exposition (repeated), and a development and recapitulation (also played twice). But there is also a large-scale coda which sets off emphatically with a ‘rocking’ left-hand accompaniment, and reaches a forceful climax before the gentle style of the beginning returns.

Alkan’s counterpoint continues in the powerful Fuguette that forms the sixth piece. Its subject is formed out of a syncopated repeated-note figure followed by an idea rather in the manner of an organ pedal-part. The four-part fugue culminates in a series of powerful chords, again in organ style. (It is worth remembering that Alkan was an enthusiastic promoter of the pedal-piano, for which he composed several pieces.)

The shivers in No 7, Le Frisson, are conveyed by the shuddering upbeat figures that punctuate the smoothly moving melodic line. The second half of the piece is much darker, moving from the F sharp major of the opening into the minor, and with ominously repeated bass notes introducing a hint of funereal drums. The end is one long shudder, sinking deep into the bass of the piano.

The pseudo-naïveté of the following piece takes the form of a gentle rigaudon, played pianissimo throughout; while the Confidence of No 9 is suggested by its warm melodic line unfolding over a regular triplet accompaniment, rather in the manner of a Chopin impromptu. In its final stages the music moves up a semitone, into A major, before finding its way home again to A flat, and gathering pace with increasing confidence. With gentle understatement, however, Alkan allows the piece to come to a quiet close after all.

Increpatio (‘Rebuke’) begins with a violent series of descending arpeggios, punctuated by a ‘running’ five-note figure that continues throughout the remainder of the piece—initially taking the form of a rumbling left-hand accompaniment to a tautly-sprung rhythmic figure that seems intent on delivering a sharp reprimand, and later appearing as a swirling figure in the right hand. At the end the gnarling arpeggios return to round the piece off in forceful style.

The sighs of Les Soupirs are charmingly conveyed by means of rapid arpeggios culminating in a languishing, unresolved cadence. In the second half of the piece the sighs become more urgent, before a final more intense intake of breath seems to be followed by a gentle shrug of the shoulders. The first Book comes to an end with a Barcarollette whose melancholy melody is confined to the left hand, while the right maintains a delicate bell-like accompaniment at the top of the keyboard.

The Ressouvenir that begins Book II seems to be a memory of childhood. Its nursery-like melody is given out for the most part as a simple unaccompanied line. Following a more animated middle section the initial melody makes a return, shifted down into the left hand. In much more virtuoso style is the Duettino that follows. At the point where the music first erupts into trills, Alkan writes ‘Alla D. Scarlatti’, though the piece might be heard less as a homage to that Baroque keyboard master than as a striking anticipation of the neoclassical manner of Stravinsky. Towards the end the counterpoint becomes so tightly knit that the pianist’s two hands seem to tumble over each other, before Alkan mischievously brings proceedings to a firm full-stop with the simplest of cadences.

The Baroque mood continues in No 15—a Tutti de Concerto avowedly composed in the old style. Its full-blooded orchestral manner alternates with snatches of an elaborate solo in a much more chromatic vein, as though a keyboard player from a later age were vainly attempting to impose his personality on the ongoing tutti.

Despite its title, No 16 is less a Fantaisie than a study in Chopinesque keyboard dexterity. Its virtuoso figuration is suddenly broken off near the close by fragments of a chorale, as though to suggest that the player had migrated to the organ, before a final delicate cascade allows the music to disappear in a puff of smoke.

The Petit prélude à 3 (No 17) is written as though for string trio, but Alkan returns to more pianistic territory with the following number—a Liedchen whose central melody is framed by an identical prelude and postlude, in the manner of a Mendelssohnian song without words. By contrast, the supplication of the following Grâces is underlined not only by the insistence of the drum-like repeated-note rhythm that runs throughout the piece, but also by the unvarying pattern of the melody’s two-bar phrases.

The chromatic harmony of the Petite marche villageoise (No 20) suggests something rather more sophisticated than a village band, as does its key of B major—unless, that is, Alkan’s intention was to parody the sound of decidedly amateur music-making. At any rate, the final bars seem to introduce the shrill sound of a piccolo piping away high above the remainder of the ensemble.

Morituri te salutant (‘Those who are about to die salute you’) was the gladiators’ greeting to the Roman emperor as they entered the arena. Alkan’s premonition of death owes its eerie atmosphere to the chromatically rising harmony of its repeated-note triplets. For all the music’s simplicity, it conveys an intensity that seems to anticipate the world of Mussorgsky. The gentle Innocenza (No 22), in the ‘soft’ key of D flat major, is one of the most aphoristic pieces of the entire series: it contains no more than eleven bars, though the first ten of them are repeated. Much less elegant is L’Homme aux sabots, in which the clunking of the man’s clogs is depicted by a proliferation of acciaccaturas (‘crushed’ notes sounded more or less simultaneously with the main note), and by grinding dissonances in the left-hand part. At the end, his steps can be heard receding into the distance, with their sound transferred to the murky depths of the piano. Alkan brings this second Book to a close with a Contredanse whose energy and brilliance seem to evoke the orchestral style of Berlioz.

Book III begins with a dazzling C major study in Chopinesque style entitled La Poursuite, whose fleeting figuration is entrusted first to the right hand, and then to the left, before the two join in the chase together. The following two numbers are both in the old style. The Petit air (No 26) is of utmost simplicity, though it ends inconclusively without ever having alighted on its ostensible key of G minor. Its companion-piece is a Rigaudon which, like the similar piece in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, places the stress on the second beat of the 2/4 bar.

The title of No 28, Rigidité, refers as much to the music’s firm rhythmic character as to the implacable chords on the first and third beats of the bar. By contrast, the rhapsodic Délire—which, as we have seen, was among the first of these pieces to be composed—is an ecstatic outburst which Alkan wanted played ‘appassionatissimo’. At the end, the music sinks to a close as though all passion had been spent.

The Petit air dolent is another Chopinesque piece, with the melody unfolding in the same rhythm as its regular accompaniment. The following Début de quatuor is not written in strict quartet style throughout (there are one or two chords near the close that are purely pianistic), but Alkan had the string ensemble enough in mind for him to indicate that the final cadence was to be played ‘quasi pizzicato’.

From the chamber, Alkan moves a step closer to the opera-house with the Minuettino (No 32), whose theme invokes the aria ‘Vedrai carino’ from the second act of Don Giovanni. Beginning darkly in C sharp minor, Mozart’s melody moves with grotesque humour, and with the aid of a banana skin or two, through an alarming profusion of keys. The major-mode trio is not only in a quicker tempo, but also in two beats to the bar, rather than three. It makes a fragmentary return following the da capo, though the last word is left to the graceful cadence that rounds off Zerlina’s theme. The following number (Fais dodo) is another slumber song; and as in ‘Kind im Einschlummern’ from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, the child falls asleep while the music is still in mid-stream.

‘Odi profanum vulgus et arceo’ is a quotation from the Odes of Horace: ‘I hate the vulgar rabble and drive them away’. It explains the refinement of Alkan’s piece, which is framed by a long unaccompanied melody. The middle section is a sombre chorale in which we seem to hear the solemn sounds of trumpets and trombones. There is no such finesse in the following Musique militaire, which is another grotesquely distorted piece. Its five-bar phrase pattern, its spasmodically repetitive melodic figures, its ‘wong-note’ harmony—all these characteristics make it a forerunner of the ironic style of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Alkan’s piece gradually gathers strength, until it reaches a strident climax in a violently percussive coda.

The Toccatina is one of Alkan’s studies in constant semiquaver motion—first for the right hand, with the left punching out an accompaniment in octaves; then for both hands together. It is not, perhaps, among the most satisfying pieces of the collection—the music has a relentlessness that lends it a somewhat perfunctory character—but it is one that brings the third Book to a close in an appropriately brilliant manner.

Rather more distinguished is the C minor Scherzettino that inaugurates Book IV, even though it’s possible to feel that the series of chords punched out at its close is a somewhat gratuitous gesture. The mysterious scherzo itself has an angular theme in dotted-rhythm that unfolds alternately in the right and left hands, above and below a ‘rocking’ accompaniment.

Les bons souhaits «Le ciel vous soit toujours prospère» (‘May heaven always smile on you’) is a gentle piece whose constant switches from major to minor seem to suggest fluctuating fortunes. At the end the minor mode threatens to win the day, before a last-moment turn to the major indicates that fate has been kind after all. More strikingly individual—and, indeed, one of the most remarkable pieces in the entire collection—is Héraclite et Démocrite. The gloomy Heraclitus (the ‘weeping philosopher’, as he is often called) is represented in a portentous D minor, punctuated by heavy off-beat chords; while Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’, has a bright A major dance-like tune in repeated chords. At first, the two are presented in lengthy alternating episodes, but they soon confront each other, with fragments of their individual material cross-cut; until finally they are heard arguing simultaneously. In the end it is Democritus who has the last laugh, in a shrieking, dissonant allegro which brings proceedings to a fortissimo conclusion. The piece is one that anticipates the dual portrait of the two Polish Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The title of the following piece, Attendez-moi sous l’orme (‘Wait for me beneath the elm-tree’) is borrowed from a comedy by the late-seventeenth-century playwright Jean-François Regnard. (The play was later used as the basis of an opera by Vincent d’Indy.) Alkan’s piece is appropriately light-hearted, with two-note phrases tossed casually back and forth. It begins away from the home key, as though it were to be in B minor, before it switches to its actual key of A major. The ending is of comic abruptness.

Les Enharmoniques may refer obliquely to Rameau, one of whose keyboard pieces is called ‘L’enharmonique’, but it is an extraordinarily chromatic and elliptical piece, and one that defines no key at all. Its opening section gives way to a grotesque chorale-like episode—again unusually dissonant, and constantly modulating. A final pair of shudders deep in the bass of the piano, and this remarkable piece dies away with a long-awaited resolution onto the chord of E minor.

As if in compensation for the complexities of Les Enharmoniques, the following number is a Petit air à 5 voix, based on a melody of folk-like simplicity. The piece marks the culmination of a textural progression that had run from the Duettino and Petit prélude à trois of Book II, through the Début de quatuor of the third Book. After the Petit air, the Notturnino is a nod not in Chopin’s direction, but in Mendelssohn’s: its melancholy theme and barcarolle-like accompaniment recall the ‘Venetian Gondola Song’ in the same key of F sharp minor from Mendelssohn’s set of ‘Songs Without Words’ Op 30. Towards the end of his piece Alkan moves into the major; but a last-moment switch back to the minor as the music fades away leaves a question-mark hanging over its dying strains.

Transports is to be played con felicità, and its sense of happiness is conveyed not only by its triplet motion in both hands, but also by the ascending scale-like pattern of its melody line. At the end of this C sharp major piece, the rhythm changes abruptly, for a series of emphatic chords punched out with some force. But not even this unexpectedly violent ending can prepare the listener for the din that is let loose next, in Les Diablotins. In this extraordinary piece triumphant E flat major fanfares are continually mocked by scrunching arpeggiated chords played quietly right at the top of the keyboard. The appearance of these ‘impish’ chords on paper makes it look as though a spider had crawled across the page while the ink was still wet. In the second half of the piece the fanfare drops out of sight altogether, and the scrunching chords, played in a dry staccato, are interrupted by two chorale-like episodes—the first of them in the tenor register, marked ‘Quasi-Santo’; and the second ‘Quasi-Santa’, in the soprano. But not even these divine interventions can put paid to the imps, who are left triumphant at the end.

Things calm down a good deal in the next three pieces. The remarkably beautiful Le premier billet doux is a short love-letter (Alkan directs that it should be played amorosamente) which breaks off before the tender melody can establish itself fully. The Scherzetto that follows is a piece of Mendelssohnian lightness. Its rhythm is deceptive, with the music written across the bar-line in such a way as to give the impression of a constant alternation between two and three beats to the bar. Its trio section begins by mockingly echoing the scherzo’s concluding cadence, while at the same time cranking the key up by a semitone. The gentle melody of the penultimate piece, En Songe (‘In a dream’) is bathed in pedal. At the end, the music seems about to disappear into the distance (‘svaporandosi’ is Alkan’s instruction), but a final dry fortissimo chord of F major brings proceedings to an emphatic full-stop.

In gratitude, perhaps, for having reached the end of his large-scale project, Alkan added an unnumbered postlude to this final volume, giving it the title of Laus Deo. Its chorale-like passages, with their curious murmuring accompaniment, are framed by the bell-sounds that fascinated the composer all his life, their strident, dissonant tones proceeding in perfect fourths as well as tritones (augmented fourths). At the end, the bells suddenly die away, leaving a question-mark hanging over the pedal-saturated closing bars.

Misha Donat © 2003

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