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Hyperion Records

CDA66794 - Alkan: Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Sonatine & Le festin d'Ésope
An Allegory of Prudence by Titian (c1488-1576)
Reproduced by permission of The Trustees, The National Gallery, London
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Release date: June 1995
Total duration: 68 minutes 15 seconds

'Another Hyperion/Hamelin must' (Gramophone)

'The virtuosity is mind-boggling … the stupendous Hamelin truly gets under the skin of this ambitious, philosophical music and the mountain ranges of technical ability that it demands. The finest Alkan pianist of his generation' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Breathtaking' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'The whole disc is an outstanding achievement—There's no better introduction in the current catalogue to this intriguing, paradoxical composer' (The Independent)

'Truly extraordinary…quite simply, self-recommending' (International Record Review)

'One of the phenomenal pianists of the century … superhuman … staggering virtuosity' (American Record Guide)

'Breathtaking virtuosity, outshining all rivals' (The Guardian)

'Phenomenal. Breathtaking. Staggering … the quality of playing throughout is on that mouth-gaping, heart-pounding level where amazement and high respect result from an overwhelming experience … that someone could play this way is imaginable. That someone is actually playing this way is unbelievable. I heard this CD's Sonatina and Aesop for the first time in my car. I nearly drove off the road—several times … easily one of the best piano recordings ever made' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hamelin’s breathtakingly confident accounts of this under-rated music are as compulsive as they are revelatory' (

'Without a shadow of a doubt the finest Alkan recording ever made' (Soundscapes, Australia)

'Alkan est servi par un pianiste à la technique stupéfiante … sa virtuosité hors du commun, symbolisée par une fluidité et un contrôle de la dynamique tout simplement sidérants' (Répertoire, France)

'Un virtuoso sbalorditivo … destinato a fare la gioia di chi cerca il virtuosismo puro (qui elevato a livelli stratosferici) e l'originalità del programma' (Musica, Italy)

Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Sonatine & Le festin d'Ésope
Allegro vivace  [5'06]
Allegramente  [4'07]
Scherzo-Minuet  [3'33]
Other recommended albums
'Marc-André Hamelin live at Wigmore Hall' (CDA66765)
Marc-André Hamelin live at Wigmore Hall
'Rachmaninov: Moments musicaux & Morceaux de salon' (CDA66184)
Rachmaninov: Moments musicaux & Morceaux de salon

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Grande Sonate and Sonatine, brought together on this recording, are Charles-Valentin Alkan’s first and last masterpieces for solo piano and illustrate two extremes in the composer’s aesthetic development.

In many respects, the Grande Sonate, Op 33, is one of the pinnacles not only of Alkan’s output but of the entire Romantic piano repertoire. In writing a piano sonata, Alkan was reviving and preserving a form which was not merely undervalued by the French but was even described by Schumann as being ‘worn out’. In the hands of this extremely discreet composer, it could almost claim to be a manifesto: composed in the wake of the 1848 Revolution, and dedicated to his father, it is prefaced by what constitutes one of the rare official examples of the composer’s taking an aesthetic stand on an extremely controversial matter: programme music. His text is not to be overlooked:

Much has been said and written about the limitations of expression through music. Without adopting this rule or that, without trying to resolve any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I will simply say why I have given these four pieces such titles and why I have sometimes used terms which are simply never used by others.
It is not a question, here, of imitative music; even less so of music seeking its own justification, seeking to explain its particular effect or its validity, in a realm beyond the music itself. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and fourth an andante and a largo; but each one corresponds, to my mind, to a given moment in time, to a specific frame of mind, a particular state of the imagination. Why should I not portray it? We will always have music in some form and it can but enhance our ability to express ourselves; the performer, without relinquishing anything of his individual sentiment, is inspired by the composer’s own ideas: a name and an object which in the realm of the intellect form a perfect combination, seem, when taken in a material sense, to clash with one another. So, however ambitious this information may seem at first glance, I believe that I might be better understood and better interpreted by including it here than I would be without it.
Let me also call upon Beethoven in his authority. We know that, towards the end of his career, this great man was working on a systematic catalogue of his major works. In it, he aimed to record the plan, memory or inspiration which gave rise to each one.

The composition and publication of the Grande Sonate occurred at a crucial moment in the composer’s life. During the summer of 1848, when the Revolution was not yet over, Zimmerman, Alkan’s teacher, resigned from his position as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. It would seem natural enough that Charles-Valentin, his most brilliant and promising student, should succeed him; but in the troubled climate of the time, and as a result of some predictable intrigue, it was in fact a second-rate musician, Antoine Marmontel, who was to gain the post. This was a particularly bitter pill for Alkan to swallow; he was to fade gradually further into obscurity and renounce all public and official posts. The Revolution was also to harm any publicity which might have surrounded the publication of the Grande Sonate: although it was well heralded in the music magazines, it would appear that there was not one single review of the piece, nor one public performance thereafter. The British pianist Ronald Smith is fully justified in thinking that he brought the piece to life when he gave it its first public performance in America in 1973!

Alkan was to try his hand at the piano sonata form on four occasions: the Grande Sonate, Op 33, the Symphony and Concerto for solo piano, Op 39, and the Sonatine, Op 61, all illustrate the discrepancies between an inherited Classical form and the trends of Romanticism. The astonishing complexity of the Grande Sonate was certainly disconcerting for his contemporaries and sufficiently justified his decision to give the programme a preface. Let us not forget three of its most markedly original features: as in the Symphony and Concerto, Op 39, and well before Mahler or Nielsen, the tonality evolves during the course of the work without returning to a ‘root tonality’; confining ourselves to the start of each movement, the keys are respectively D major, D sharp minor, G major, G sharp minor; if we focus purely on the endings, we find B major, F sharp major, G major and G sharp minor. The sequence of tempi was equally likely to be disconcerting for the listener: in place of the usual quick–slow–quick, Alkan puts four successively slower movements one after another. Finally, he invokes two of the great Romantic myths – Faust and Prometheus; the first, immortalized by Goethe, enjoyed a popularity kept alive by Berlioz, Gounod, Liszt and Schumann etc, while Prometheus takes us back to antiquity, to an era which Alkan, being passionate about the Classics, knew well and which he often referred to in his compositions.

The sonata opens with ‘20 ans’, a frenzied scherzo which frequently reminds one of Chopin’s Scherzo No 3. Straightaway, the 3/4 time is juxtaposed with accents on every other beat. The trio portrays the awakening of love, working its way gradually through various sections, from ‘timidly’ to ‘lovingly’ and on to ‘with joy’. The coda brings the movement to a whirling conclusion.

‘30 ans, Quasi-Faust’ is the heart of the sonata. It opens with the Faust theme which, in four bars, covers the whole keyboard and states the rhythmic formulae which will permeate the entire movement. There follows the Devil’s theme, in B major, which is the inversion of Faust’s theme. Marguerite’s theme, in G sharp minor and then major, presented at first in a mood of sweet sadness, passes through numerous climatic changes. The development and the return of the exposition lead on to four huge arpeggios which spread across every octave of the keyboard. Now comes a fugue, a horribly complicated eight-part fugue, which the eye alone can follow in the score; in order to make it legible, the composer himself establishes the use of different manuscript styles! The fugue continues until the entrance of ‘Le Seigneur’, and the movement concludes with a clear victory of Good over Evil, thus inspired by Goethe’s Faust Part 2, unlike the ending of Berlioz’s opera-oratorio where the composer boldly damns his hero.

‘40 ans, un ménage heureux’ presents a picture of unspoken Romance, interrupted on two occasions by a charming three-voice digression entitled ‘les enfants’; this latter section exhibits a use of thirds, sixths, fifths which is very untypical of Alkan who, unlike Chopin, usually shows little interest in anything other than octaves and chords. With the return of the opening section, the theme, treated in canon, becomes even more animated. The clock striking ten is the signal for prayer.

‘50 ans, Prométhée enchaîné’ draws us to the abyss. As an epigraph, Alkan cites several verses of the Aesychlus tragedy:

No, you could never bear my suffering! If only destiny would let me die! To die … would release me from my torments! Would that Jupiter had not lost his power. I will live whatever he might do … See if I deserve to suffer such torments! [lines 750–754, 1051, 1091 (the end of the play)]

After the victory in ‘Quasi-Faust’ and the joy of the happy household – something which the composer would always be denied – ‘50 ans’ ends with an acknowledgement of failure, in a visionary piece written without hint of pomposity or excess. Thinking about the composer’s destiny, the piece is also a premonition.

The Sonatine, Op 61, was written fourteen years after the Grande Sonate and forms a striking contrast to it. Concise and concentrated in the extreme, refined in its style of writing, and of exceptional technical difficulty, it is a gem of equilibrium and perhaps presents Alkan at his most accessible. Its first movement, although swept along and interrupted by violent angry outbursts, maintains a profound coherence, reinforced by the taut conjoining of its two themes. The Allegramente which follows, in F major, belongs within the best tradition of Alkan’s falsely naive works. It is immediately reminiscent of the slow movement from Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine; Ravel was, moreover, familiar with the music of this, the composer of Le festin d’Esope. The Scherzo-Minuet, in D minor, is one of those perpetual motion pieces of which the composer was so fond; he interrupts its driving rhythm with a trio which eases the pace of the movement but is unsettled by various rhythmic and harmonic devices. The finale, Tempo giusto, opens with startling fifths which conjure up the empty chords of a cello or the toll of bells, in the style of Mussorgsky in his Pictures at an Exhibition; the sections which follow vary greatly without ever altering the movement’s deep cohesion. A dry fortissimo chord brings the four movements to a close.

Le festin d’Esope completes the cycle of 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op 39, to which the Symphony and the huge Concerto for solo piano belong. The term ‘study’ should be taken to mean the same as it does to Chopin and a fortiori Clementi or Cramer. Alkan, more so even than Liszt, expands the scope of this form to the dimension of a symphonic poem, a rhapsody. Le festin d’Esope consists of a series of variations on a theme which one might liken to traditional Jewish melodies. The argument is to be found again in Jean de la Fontaine’s La vie d’Esope le Phrygien:

One market day, Xantus, who had decided to treat some of his friends, ordered him to buy the best and nothing but the best. The Phrygian said to himself, ‘I’m going to teach you to specify what you want, without leaving it all to the discretion of a slave’. And so he bought nothing but tongue, which he adapted to each different sauce; the starter, the main course, the dessert, everything was tongue. At first the guests praised his choice of dish; but by the end they were filled with disgust. ‘Did I not order you’, said Xantus, ‘to buy the best?’ ‘And what could be better than tongue?’ answered Aesop. ‘It is our connection to civil life, the key to the sciences, the organ of truth and reason. Through it, we build and police our towns; we learn; we persuade; we rule over assemblies; we fulfil the greatest of all our duties, namely to praise God.’

The theme of the tongue, the most important organ and function, is frequently mentioned in the Bible, Alkan’s favourite book. The variations, apart from dealing with various technical problems, illustrate without doubt every possible transformation that a theme could go through; in addition, one is presented with a succession of little tableaux of the animal kingdom, Alkan giving us several hints of this such as the marking abajante.

The Barcarolle which completes this recital is taken from the third of Alkan’s five Recueils de Chants for piano. These five books are distinctive in that they are modelled on Mendelssohn’s first collection of Lieder ohne Worte; they follow the same tone sequence and conclude with a barcarolle. The Barcarolle from the third collection is undoubtedly one of Alkan’s most seductive and meaningful pieces: its melody imprints itself immediately on one’s memory, and the whole work radiates a melancholic sweetness.

François Luguenot © 1995
English: Ansy Boothroyd

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