Hyperion Records

Alkan, Charles-Valentin (1813-1888)  

Charles-Valentin Alkan

born: 30 November 1813
died: 29 March 1888
country: France

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'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.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2007

Albums
'Alkan & Chopin: Cello Sonatas' (CDA67624)
Alkan & Chopin: Cello Sonatas
'Alkan & Henselt: Piano Concertos' (CDA66717)
Alkan & Henselt: Piano Concertos
'Alkan: Concerto for solo piano' (CDA67569)
Alkan: Concerto for solo piano
'Alkan: Esquisses Op 63' (CDA67377)
Alkan: Esquisses Op 63
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50ALAC 20-bit 44.1 kHz £8.50 CDA67377  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Alkan: Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Sonatine & Le festin d'Ésope' (CDA66794)
Alkan: Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Sonatine & Le festin d'Ésope
'Alkan: Symphony for solo piano' (CDA67218)
Alkan: Symphony for solo piano
'Chopin & Alkan: Cello Sonatas' (CDA67624)
Chopin & Alkan: Cello Sonatas
'Henselt & Alkan: Piano Concertos' (CDA66717)
Henselt & Alkan: Piano Concertos
'Marc-André Hamelin live at Wigmore Hall' (CDA66765)
Marc-André Hamelin live at Wigmore Hall
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99 CDA66765  CD temporarily out of stock  
'Organ Dreams, Vol. 1' (CDA67060)
Organ Dreams, Vol. 1
MP3 £6.00FLAC £6.00ALAC £6.00Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67060  Archive Service   Download currently discounted
'Organ Dreams, Vol. 4' (CDA67436)
Organ Dreams, Vol. 4
'Stephen Hough's French Album' (CDA67890)
Stephen Hough's French Album
'The Composer-Pianists' (CDA67050)
The Composer-Pianists
On other labels
'The Transcendental Tradition' (APR5630)
The Transcendental Tradition
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99 APR5630  Download only  
Complete works available for download
48 Esquisses, Op 63 Steven Osborne (piano)
Alleluia, Op 25 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Cello Sonata in E major, Op 47 Alban Gerhardt (cello), Steven Osborne (piano)
Concerto da camera in A minor, Op 10 No 1 Marc-André Hamelin (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Concerto da camera in C sharp minor, Op 10 No 2 Marc-André Hamelin (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Op 33 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Salut, cendre du pauvre!, Op 45 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Sonatine, Op 61 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Souvenirs 'Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique', Op 15 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Super flumina Babylonis 'Paraphrase du Psaume 137', Op 52 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Trois Grandes Études, Op 76 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Troisième recueil de chants, Op 65 Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD, RITTER VON GLUCK  (1714-1787)
Gavotte d'Orphée Ronald Stevenson (piano)
Alphabetical listing of all musical works
25 Préludes, Op 31 (Alkan)
48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Adagio  No 9 Concerto for solo piano movement 2 of Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 (Alkan)
Aime-moi  No 1 of Souvenirs 'Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique', Op 15 (Alkan)
Allegretto alla barbaresca  No 10 Concerto for solo piano movement 3 of Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 (Alkan)
Allegro assai  No 8 Concerto for solo piano movement 1 of Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 (Alkan)
Allegro con brio  Movement 1 of Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 (Beethoven/Alkan)
Alleluia, Op 25 (Alkan)
Attendez-moi sous l'orme  Book 4 No 40 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Barcarolle: Assez lentement  No 6 of Troisième recueil de chants, Op 65 (Alkan)
Barcarollette  Book 1 No 12 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Cello Sonata in E major, Op 47 (Alkan)
Concerto da camera in A minor, Op 10 No 1 (Alkan)
Concerto da camera in C sharp minor, Op 10 No 2 (Alkan)
Confidence  Book 1 No 9 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Contredanse  Book 2 No 24 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Début de quatuor  Book 3 No 31 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Délire  Book 3 No 29 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 (Alkan)
Duettino  Book 2 No 14 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
En songe  Book 4 No 48 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Esprits follets: Prestissimo  No 2 of Troisième recueil de chants, Op 65 (Alkan)
Fais dodo  Book 3 No 33 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Fantaisie  Book 2 No 16 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Fuguette  Book 1 No 6 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Gavotte d'Orphée (Gluck/Alkan)
Grâces  Book 2 No 19 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Op 33 (Alkan)
Héraclite et Démocrite  Book 4 No 39 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Horace et Lydie: Vivacissimo  No 5 of Troisième recueil de chants, Op 65 (Alkan)
Increpatio  Book 1 No 10 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Inflexibilité  Book 3 No 28 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Innocenzia  Book 2 No 22 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer  No 8 of 25 Préludes, Op 31 (Alkan)
La poursuite  Book 3 No 25 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
La vision  Book 1 No 1 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Laus Deo  Book 4, Postlude of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Le festin d'Ésope  No 12 of Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39 (Alkan)
Le frisson  Book 1 No 7 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Le legatissimo  Book 1 No 3 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Le premier billet doux  Book 4 No 46 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Le staccatissimo  Book 1 No 2 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Le vent  No 2 of Souvenirs 'Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique', Op 15 (Alkan)
Les bons souhaits  Book 4 No 38 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Les cloches  Book 1 No 4 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Les diablotins  Book 4 No 45 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Les enharmoniques  Book 4 No 41 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Les initiés  Book 1 No 5 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Les soupirs  Book 1 No 11 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
L'homme aux sabots  Book 2 No 23 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Liedchen  Book 2 No 18 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Minuettino  Book 3 No 32 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Morituri te salutant  Book 2 No 21 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Morte  No 3 of Souvenirs 'Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique', Op 15 (Alkan)
Musique militaire  Book 3 No 35 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Notturnino – Innamorato  Book 4 No 43 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Odi profanum vulgus et arceo  Book 3 No 34 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Petit air  Book 3 No 26 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Petit air a 5 voix  Book 4 No 42 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Petit air dolent  Book 3 No 30 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Petit prélude a 3  Book 2 No 17 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Petite marche villageoise  Book 2 No 20 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 (Beethoven/Alkan)
Prière  No 5 of Prières, Op 64 (Alkan/Franck)
Prières, Op 64 (Alkan/Franck)
Pseudo-naïveté  Book 1 No 8 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Ressouvenir  Book 2 No 13 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Rigaudon  Book 3 No 27 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Salut, cendre du pauvre!, Op 45 (Alkan)
Scherzettino  Book 4 No 37 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Scherzetto  Book 4 No 47 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Sonatine, Op 61 (Alkan)
Souvenirs 'Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique', Op 15 (Alkan)
Super flumina Babylonis 'Paraphrase du Psaume 137', Op 52 (Alkan)
Symphony No 94 in G major 'Surprise' (Haydn/Alkan)
Toccatina  Book 3 No 36 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Transports  Book 4 No 44 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
Treize Prières, Op 64 (Alkan)
Trois Grandes Études, Op 76 (Alkan)
Troisième recueil de chants, Op 65 (Alkan)
Tutti de concerto dans le genre ancien  Book 2 No 15 of 48 Esquisses, Op 63 (Alkan)
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