No 1: Fantaisie in A flat major for left hand
No 2: Introduction, variations and finale in D major for right hand
No 3: Mouvement semblable et perpetuel: Rondo-toccata in C minor
A Jovian manifesto of keyboard technique, resource and invention, the Trois Grandes Études, in spite of their late opus number, are an early creation. Contemporary with the first version of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini, they date from around 1838–40, well before either the compendious Grande Sonate or the exacting twenty-four Studies in major (Op 35) and minor (Op 39) keys. Ronald Smith claims that they ‘alone establish Alkan as the rival, if not indeed the peer, of Liszt as the joint architect of transcendental piano technique’. And in Vol II of his Alkan study (Kahn & Averill, 1987) he rightly draws attention to their extraordinary ‘single-handed challenge’ creating ‘a sense of strife; of grappling with odds. The writing of Bach, Paganini and Ysaÿe for unaccompanied strings’, he says, ‘provides the closest parallel. It also imposes momentary rubati and concentrates the right foot in a highly specialised way by training the ear to judge the precise tolerance of pedal-held sound compatible with clarity of texture’. From Liszt and Thalberg to Busoni and Sorabji, there is nothing like them in the repertory.
A magical world of sounds, cadences and dreams is the domain of the first Étude—structurally comprised of a prologue, a linking speeded-up variant, and a variation finale of ‘prancing counterpoints [that] are in themselves self-developing’ (Smith). Busoni played it in Berlin in 1908. Ravel, too, knew it.
Classically disciplined, romantically incandescent, and long (despite the present performance being around seven minutes shorter than Smith’s June 1987 Abbey Road recording), the massive second Étude takes the right hand to stratospheric summits of experience. No puissance course of more testing endurance can be imagined. Its sonic illusion, all-embracing register and dynamic scale, its awesome physical demand involving not just hand but body and feet, is not for the faint-hearted.
From jump steeplechase to flat sprint, from separate to united hands, is the quantum leap of the third Étude, a presto of terrifying muscular and psychological adjustment. If the date of 1838 in Ronald Smith’s text is correct one wonders if Chopin may have had its hurtling monodic piano and hairpinned vision in mind when he came to compose the finale of his ‘Funeral March’ Sonata a year later? Alkan was a close friend (in the 1840s becoming a next door neighbour in the Square d’Orléans) to whom Chopin subsequently passed on his pupils. And the Pole had been one of the undaunted piano players in Alkan’s eight-hand arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony played at a concert in Paris on 3 March 1838. Such unsettling associations (consider how Liszt seems to have based the characterization and incident of his B minor Sonata on the ‘Quasi Faust’ movement of the Grande Sonate) riddle the Alkan enigma.
from notes by Ates Orga © 1994