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.
from notes by François Luguenot © 2001
English: Ansy Boothroyd