'A performance of the Concerto of such brilliance and lucidity that one can only listen in awe and amazement. Scaling even the most ferocious hurdles with yards to spare, he is blessedly free to explore the very heart of Alkan's bewildering interplay of austerity and monstrous elaboration … You can only marvel at such a unique mix of blazing if nonchalantly deployed virtuosity and poetic conviction … All of this is superly recorded and presented, prompting some not unreasonable conjecture: if Liszt feared Alkan's mastery as a pianist he may well have feared Hamelin's' (Gramophone)
'The sheer keyboard brilliance of Hamelin's playing is exceptional. The breathtaking clarity with which he articulates even the most ferocious passages, while unerringly projecting melodic shapes that are often obscured under welters of notes, never fails to dazzle, and the way in which he sustains the huge first movement of the Concerto so that each discursive paragraph seems a natural consequence of what precedes it is a triumph of pure musical will' (The Guardian *****)
'Hamelin's playing here is as breathtaking as ever - it is hard to believe that a lot of it is humanly possible - but, more than simply a dazzling panoply of notes, it conveys a deep musical and expressive range' (Daily Telegraph)
'Hamelin deserves an Olympic gold medal for this extreme musical sport: I doubt that any other living pianist could carry off the work with such secure bedazzlement, not to mention infusing it with refulgent tone and downright charm' (Classic FM Magazine *****)
'This intelligent and magnificently-played programme, displaying contrasting sides of the composer's personality … The Concerto is an engrossing musical journey, ranging from hushed chorale textures to the dizzying cascades of notes that make an orchestra entirely superfluous … The performance is stunning. Aside from over a decade's more experience, Hamelin now has the benefit of Hyperion's stunning recorded sound … As for the performance, if anyone can play it better, expect to see the devil as their agent. It is not simply that Hamelin can negotiate the ferocious technical challenges. Like a great ballet dancer, he maintaines a clarity and beauty of line, so that the shape of the music is always clear and seems natural, however unnatural the demands made by Alkan … This is playing of the highest order in music that should be at the heart of the Romantic repertoire' (BBC Music Magazine)
'One of the supreme examples of pianistic agility in the catalog … The nocturnal slow movement is especially powerful here, its harmonies superbly weighted, its more dramatic moments tinged with a subtle melodramatic chill … Hyperion's sound is excellent too. Highest recommendation' (Fanfare, USA)
'No piano lover should miss this absolutely transcendent, watershed release' (ClassicsToday.com)
'Bien que l'oeuvre soit extraite d'un recueil d'Etudes, Hamelin n'en fait pas une démonstration technique; il l'aborde avec infiniment de poésie, faite d'inflexions bien senties et de nuances subtiles. De la part d'un pianiste dont on connaît l'enthousiasme pour la délirante inspiration du compositeur, cela semblerait presque naturel... mais cette évidence ne doit pas faire oublier avec quelle noble allure l'interprète se joue des innombrables pièges que pose la partition … Quant aux l'autres... ils écouteront sans doute à genoux 'intégralité de ce CD' (Diapason) 'The Alkan concerto is played to stunning perfection. When you listen to Hamelin play the most horrendously tricky keyboard acrobatics, it's as natural as being in a Ferrari with Michael Schumacher as your driver - exciting, but you know you're in good hands. We know Hamelin can not go wrong' (Pianist Magazine)
'It is an axiom of classical recording that there is no such thing as a Hamelin disc that is anything less than compelling and fascinating. He is the most impressive combination of technique, intellect and fearlessness … The music here is wild, untrammelled and gorgeous and always so dauntingly played that, at times, it defies belief' (Buffalo News)
'Incredibly, Hamelin not only holds this massive work together but also makes it a satisfying musical experience … Hamelin scores with immaculate pianism and, in the lyric pieces, a deceptive simplicity' (Absolute Sound, USA)
'It's great stuff and it's almost impossible to play. Of course, to Marc-André Hamelin everything is possible; he sails through the fiendish passages with incredible ease and panache. The man is not only a world-class artist but possibly the greatest-ever acrobat of the keyboard. The speed, articulation, and clarity of his finger work are simply beyond belief, and at the same time the music keeps singing regardless of the complications' (The Audio Critic, USA)
Esprits follets: Prestissimo [1'39]
Canon: Assez vivement [2'32]
Tempo giusto [3'41]
Horace et Lydie: Vivacissimo [3'14]
Barcarolle: Assez lentement [4'00]
Alkan was one of the greatest composer-pianists in history, with a voice as original as Chopin or Liszt, and a technique that even Liszt admitted was the greatest he had ever known. His music is of surpassing difficulty, and fell into relative obscurity in an age where published music was frequently aimed at amateurs. Its greatness is undeniable—but it unquestionably requires performances of unceasing brilliance.
Alkan’s Concerto for solo piano is one of the great pianistic high-wire acts—an epic work which demands unprecedented levels of technical ability and physical stamina. It is conceived on a breathtakingly grand scale and is rich with both orchestral sonorities and lyrical pianistic passages. The Troisième recueil de chants is a delightful rarity, rescued here from oblivion by the wonderful Marc-André Hamelin, who with his transcendent technique is simply one of the greatest living performers of this intoxicating music.
Other recommended albums
'The neglect and obscurity into which [Alkan] has fallen is’, as the American novelist and poet Henry Bellamann observed, ‘one of the most puzzling things in the history of modern music.’ To those coming afresh to the music on this recording, it is an observation worth bearing in mind.
Who was Alkan? He was one of the greatest composer-pianists in history. He had a voice as original and individual as Chopin or Liszt, and a keyboard technique that even Liszt admitted was the greatest he had ever known. Hans von Bülow described Alkan as ‘the Berlioz of the piano’; Busoni thought that Alkan’s études were ‘the most significant after Chopin and Liszt’. These are not insignificant figures whose views can be dismissed lightly. The uninitiated must at the very least be intrigued, while committed Alkanists can only nod smugly, gratified that such distinguished names echo their own opinions.
Much of Alkan’s life is shrouded in mystery. This was so even when he was alive, his self-imposed isolation only adding to the fascination. There are only two images of him, one a portrait taken in his early forties, the other with his back to the camera holding an umbrella. When he died in 1888, an obituary in Le Ménestrel opened: ‘Charles-Valentin Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence.’ The author goes on to recall the name and work of ‘an artist infinitely greater than thousands of his more celebrated and praised contemporaries’.
He was born Charles-Valentin Morhange in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris, where his father, Alkan Morhange, ran a little boarding school. After his sister Céleste in 1812 and Charles-Valentin’s arrival on 30 November 1813 came a further four brothers between 1816 and 1827, all destined for musical careers. His musical progress was prodigious, making his first public appearance at the age of seven-and-a-half as a violinist. His debut as a pianist had to wait until he was twelve (2 April 1826) when he played a number of his compositions in a concert at the home of the extraordinary inventor and piano manufacturer Henri Pape. He was already known simply as ‘Le jeune Alkan’ having dropped his given surname in favour of his father’s first name (Alkan being the equivalent of the English ‘John’). A favourite of his teacher Joseph Zimmerman at the Conservatoire where he had enrolled at the age of six, Alkan was soon introduced to the elegant salon life of Paris. By the age of twenty-four, concert announcements referred to him as ‘the celebrated Alkan’ and he had taken up residence in one of Paris’s most fashionable addresses, the Square d’Orléans where his neighbours were Zimmerman, Kalkbrenner, Dumas fils and, later, Chopin and George Sand. All seemed set for a brilliant career playing concerts, teaching and composing. It was not to be.
A series of events led him, increasingly, to shun society. From 1838 to 1844 little is known of him, a period coinciding with the birth of his natural son, the pianist Élie-Miriam Delaborde (1839–1913). He returned to the concert stage playing just three recitals (two in April 1844, one the following year). In 1848, when Zimmerman retired from the Conservatoire as head of the piano department, Alkan was thought of as his natural successor. Instead, and despite petitioning from his friends, the post went to Zimmerman’s former pupil and friend Antoine Marmontel. Alkan was bitterly disappointed. Becoming increasingly frustrated at his lack of recognition, after giving a chamber concert in May 1849 he did not play again in public for nearly twenty-five years.
By then, though only in his mid-sixties, he was in poor health, a frail little white-bearded man with ‘skinny, hooked fingers’. Busoni recalled hearing him alone in an empty room playing Bach on an Erard pédalier (pedal piano). ‘I listened, riveted to the spot by the expressive, crystal clear playing.’ This was followed by Beethoven’s Opus 110. ‘What happened to the great Beethovenian poem … I couldn’t begin to describe. [The performance] affected me with an enthusiasm such as I have never experienced since. This was not Liszt—perhaps less perfect, technically—but it had greater intimacy and was more humanly moving …’
Much of Alkan’s music is of surpassing difficulty, taking it way beyond the realm of the amateur and playable only by virtuosi with transcendent techniques. Published only sporadically and without a champion, what hope did it have when born without life-support even in that piano-ridden age? In the annual series of Six petits concerts that Alkan inaugurated in 1873, although he programmed a number of his own works, his main attention was on all the major keyboard composers from Couperin to Saint-Saëns, taking in W F Bach, Kessler and Czerny en route, as well as Field, Moscheles and Chopin (but, notably, no Liszt). The series ended in 1877 and Alkan retired into obscurity, only occasionally being coaxed back into the limelight at social gatherings when, it was said, he was a most lively conversationalist. Visitors to his home tended to be rebuffed. When Friedrich Niecks, Chopin’s biographer, called on him and asked the concierge whether Monsieur Alkan was at home, the reply was a decisive ‘No’. On further enquiring when he could be found at home, the reply was an equally decisive ‘Never’ (though when Niecks encountered Alkan at Erard’s a few days later ‘the reception of me was not merely polite, but most friendly’).
Alkan died on 29 March 1888. The cause of death was one of the most improbable in musical history—crushed to death by a bookcase that toppled over as he reached up to retrieve a book in his Paris home. Apart from his immediate family, there were just four mourners at his funeral.
Concerto for solo piano Op 39 Nos 8–10
Three years earlier, Alkan had published in two volumes his Douze études dans tous les tons majeurs, Op 35. Starting in A major and moving up in a logical progression of fourths (A, D, G etc.), they are of a similar length and scope to Liszt’s Études. In 1857 came the companion to Op 35, following a similar cycle of fourths: Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39. Here the pianistic stakes are raised—considerably. Indeed, Ronald Smith, that indefatigable champion of Alkan, suggests that the very term ‘étude’ must seem singularly inappropriate, ‘that is until one considers these works as studies in the translation of orchestral sonorities into their pianistic counterpart’. These twelve studies span 277 pages and contain some of the most uncompromising writing in the entire literature of the piano, ‘our only remaining evidence,’ says Smith, ‘of a technique that caused even Liszt to feel uneasy when playing in Alkan’s presence’.
The first three studies (Comme le vent, En rythme molossique and Scherzo diabolico) are followed by the four that comprise the Symphony for solo piano (recorded by Mr Hamelin on). Studies 8, 9 and 10 are grouped together as the Concerto for solo piano, a work that is, on one level at least, the pianist’s ultimate calling card. The set concludes with the rarely heard Ouverture, the second longest of the studies, and No 12, Le festin d’Ésope (The Feast of Aesop), the best known of Alkan’s works (also recorded by Mr Hamelin, on ).
The first movement of the Concerto is a colossal 72 pages in length, its 1,343 bars making it longer than Beethoven’s entire ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata. It takes just under half an hour to perform. Alkan casts the movement in the unfamiliar key of G sharp minor, with frequent excursions into the relative major (B), maintaining the same five sharps of the key signature despite a plethora of accidentals throughout indicating passages in remoter keys, until five pages before the end when he modulates triumphantly into the four flats of the tonic major (A flat). To help underline that this is a concerto (and not a symphony, sonata or fantasy), Alkan indicates ‘tutti’ and ‘solo’ passages which generally, but not always, indicate sonorous orchestral textures contrasted with more lyrical pianistic ones. The petulant opening subject, for example, is marked ‘tutti’ and ‘quasi-trombe’. For such a gargantuan movement, a route map is in order with approximate timings:
0'00 first subject: Allegro assai
After this epic roller-coaster ride, the succeeding movements are relatively straightforward in structure, though few pages allow any resting on pianistic laurels. Moving upwards in Alkan’s tidy-minded sequence of fourths, the second movement in C sharp minor (Adagio) begins like its predecessor with an orchestral hint: ‘quasi-celli’. The ‘soloist’ enters (0'40) with the mournful initial idea followed at 3'48 by the second subject. All seems set for a reassuring time with writing that could at one moment be by Chopin at another by Liszt. But the ever-resourceful Alkan is always ready to unsettle those expecting a conventional journey. Sardonic punctuations and unlikely modulations hint at something darker to come. And indeed the storm clouds quickly gather, leading (who would have anticipated it?) to the stark drum beats of a funeral march (6'40). After a calming passage in D flat major (7'59), we return to the opening lament now underpinned by rumbling thunder. Distant drum beats again. The opening cello theme. Everything dying away to nothing—except for one last spiteful jab.
The Concerto’s third movement (logically keyed in F sharp minor) is marked Allegretto alla barbaresca. Immediately, we are flung into a feverish brew of conflicting ideas—an initial flourish that sounds like the Rakoczy March, a polonaise lasting a mere eight bars, followed by a ‘tutti’ marked ‘quasi-ribeche’ (the rebec is an early stringed instrument played with a bow that originated in Arabia). We might be in the souks of Cairo. This brief and brutal paragraph, one that must have shocked Alkan’s early listeners, leads to an extended ‘solo’ section of scintillating Parisian delicacy. So within the space of two pages we visit Hungary, Poland, Egypt and France. The nine minutes of music that follow are among the most thrilling and relentlessly taxing ever written for the piano. Op 39 No 10 is one of the great pianistic high-wire acts that should have you on the edge of your seat as it concludes in a riotous blaze of F sharp major.
Troisième recueil de chants Op 65
No 1 of the Op 65 set has no title beyond its tempo marking, Vivante, rippling triplets accompanying its graceful melody for all but five bars. No 2, Esprits follets (‘Goblins’), is a near-relation of Mendelssohn’s Spinnerlied, Op 67 No 4, a prestissimo fairy-light scherzo. No 3, Canon: Assez vivement, is a haunting lullaby and simultaneously a beautifully harmonized and ingenious strict canon at the octave—the melody is played by the right hand followed a bar later, an octave lower, by the left hand. No 4, Tempo giusto, begins and ends as a polonaise, its middle section a succession of unexpected modulations and rhythms rising to a climax that threatens to take us back to the supercharged world of the Concerto. No 5 is the oddly named Horace et Lydie. Ronald Smith relates in Alkan: The Music (Kahn & Averill, 1987) that Dr John White identified the structure of the piece as following meticulously the scheme of one of Horace’s Odes in which ‘the second speaker [Lydie] in the dialogue must reply to the first [Horace] in the same number of verses and on the same or similar subject and also, if possible, “cap” what the first speaker has said’. The last of the set, Barcarolle, is, relatively, one of Alkan’s best-known works (Mr Hamelin has recorded it previously on) and, according to Smith: ‘A fascinating pre-echo of the “Twenties”. With its flattened sevenths and false relations it might well be described as the piece of Mendelssohn that Gershwin forgot to write!’
Taken as a whole, one must wonder why this third book of Alkan’s Chants is so completely unknown. Any one of its six pieces would, at the very least, provide a pleasing encore. Perhaps (and not for the first time) the advocacy of Mr Hamelin will rescue these unjustly forgotten gems and put them where they belong—restored, polished and glittering in the shop window for everyone to see.
Jeremy Nicholas © 2007