Hyperion Records

Cello Sonata in E major, Op 47
first performed by Auguste-Joseph Franchomme and Alkan at the Salle Erard in April 1857; dedicated to James Odier

'Alkan & Chopin: Cello Sonatas' (CDA67624)
Alkan & Chopin: Cello Sonatas
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Movement 1: Allegro molto
Movement 2: Allegrettino
Movement 3: Adagio
Movement 4: Finale alla Saltarella: Prestissimo

Cello Sonata in E major, Op 47
Alkan’s Cello Sonata seems to have enjoyed a clamorous reception on the few occasions it had a public outing. A review of a Paris performance in 1875—with the composer again at the piano—raved about its ‘wealth of melody’ and tells us that the enthusiastic audience rewarded the Sonata with an ovation. For most of the twentieth century, the piece suffered almost inexplicable neglect, before it was once more thrust into audience awareness by the mini Alkan-revival that has been such a welcome feature of concert life in recent years. That Alkan’s E major Sonata is genuinely first-rate music will be apparent from the first notes of the passionately fervent Allegro molto that opens the work. Here a lyricism reminiscent of the contemporary French grand operas of Meyerbeer unfolds within a sonata form of Beethovenian power and élan. The striding new theme in a tenebrous C minor that is suddenly introduced in the central development section of the movement seems especially to recall the German master—or at least to be inspired by a related stroke in the first movement of his ‘Eroica’ Symphony—and to look forward to similar moments in Brahms.

One might be forgiven for wondering, after this commanding start, why Alkan’s works have a reputation for elusive eccentricity. All is revealed in the gentle second movement, where what begins as a simply lilting, even naive Siciliano tune gradually becomes infected with slightly twisted ‘wrong’ notes, and even more peculiarly biting harmonies. The music begins slowly to sound like a knowing satire on itself. By the close, it might seem that any naivety around is certainly not Alkan’s—a very postmodern feature indeed. Moscheles would no doubt have been aghast. Corrosive irony is fortunately completely absent from the rapt Adagio that follows, prefaced in the score by a quote from the Old Testament book of Micah: ‘As dew from the Lord, as a shower upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man …’. Alkan, a talented Hebraicist who made his own attempt to translate the entire Bible, offers this superscript in what is likely his own French version. The mystical music alternates a heartfelt melody in the lower register of the cello with shimmering passages of measured tremolando in the piano, eventually fading away in a distant pianissimo for both instruments. The rapture is rudely modified with the start of the manic Finale alla Saltarella, a furiously fast dance movement in sonata-rondo form. Such dances—the Saltarella and its sister the Tarantella—were something of a fad in France, their progenitor being the celebrated Tarantella in Auber’s opera La muette de Portici. Legend had it that those bitten by the Tarantula spider danced themselves to death in a frenzy, and Alkan’s splendidly energetic finale seems to take that as its starting point—just stopping short, one hopes, of a decisively fatal effect on either executants or audience.

from notes by Kenneth Hamilton © 2008

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