Saturday, 30 November 2013

Happy birthday Alkan!

Today, 30th November 2013, is the 200th anniversary of Charles-Valentin Alkan's birthday (1813-88), one of the greatest yet most overlooked pianinst-composers of the early 19th century. This was the pianist whom Liszt allegedly described as having "the finest technique I had ever known", the pianist who shut himself away from the public for 20 years and, among other things during that time, produced both a symphony and a concerto for solo piano as part of a set of 12 etudes in the minor keys (Op.39).

You don't wanna mess with Alkan.

The first time I came across this composer was...whew, some 4 or 5 years ago now? The first piece of his that I discovered "consciously" (i.e. I was aware that I was listening to Alkan) was a video of a performance on Youtube (but not the video below) of the 5th etude from his Op.35 set of etudes in all the major keys:

For some reason, however, the "Allegro Barbaro" didn't quite click with me at that time, at least not enough to make me want to listen to more works by the composer. It was indeed "etude-y", and I came away with the wrong impression that Alkan's writing is difficult, but dry and not particularly interesting to listen to.

A few weeks later I came across the following video:

That first C octave in the bass, and what came after it, changed my life completely.

Well, OK, maybe it wasn't that dramatic, but...boy, was I impressed! It was like I just stumbled across something I had been searching for for a very long time. The melody at 0:07 was catchy, but I really liked the C# in the bass at the start of each bar, almost as if the piano had become some sort of demonic percussion instrument. 

From 0:20, my jaw just dropped.

But what struck me the most was not so much the pure difficulty of the piece, or M.A. Hamelin's virtuosic skills, but the fact that this sounded like something that Liszt or Chopin might produce. This wasn't some "New-Age" obscurity, it was obviously a piece that has been around for at least 100 who was the composer?! I already knew Chopin's music well enough to know that it probably wasn't something by him, because I would've known about it already. I knew Liszt much less well, so could it be something by him? I guess the real question was: What do those Japanese characters mean? Alas, I found myself in the same position as the video uploader (who posted this video to find the name of the piece Hamelin was playing).

A quick scroll down to the comments section answered my question: it was Hamelin playing the ending of the 3rd movement from Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano, Op.39 No.10. The composer was the same dude who wrote that white-key etude I listened to just a few weeks ago!

And so I have officially entered the weird and wonderful world of Alkan and his music.

The rest of this post will be made up of a few commentaries on some more of Alkan's pieces which really stood out for me. Although I am sure that some of you who are reading this post are already well accustomed with Alkan's musical output, I wanted to share what I think are Alkan's really greatest compositions. After all, it is Alkan's 200th birthday!


 Op.39 Nos. 8-10: Concerto for Solo Piano

OK, this is just nuts. A concerto for solo piano? For solo piano? A CONCERTO?!

Although this isn't the first example of a piano concerto written for the solo piano (I think Bach's Italian Concerto BWV 971 was the first), this 3-movement work by Alkan certainly takes piano writing to the next level. It is about 50 minutes long (apparently the longest single work for the solo piano written during the Romantic Period) and is, to put it simply, epic.

Some of the piano writing in there you've never seen before, demonstrating that not only was Alkan a great composer but he was also a creative genius. He also makes a great job of separating the "orchestral" sections from the solo piano sections - you can clearly hear these transitions. Besides, the "orchestral" sections really do sound orchestral, and this is largely thanks to Alkan's creative 'orchestration' of certain piano passages. It's almost like a piano transcription of an orchestral work...but that would be an understatement. It is much more elaborate than that, because at the same time, it is clear that this work was written for solo piano.

The video above is the first part of Hamelin's performance of the complete concerto at Casals Hall in Tokyo. If you haven't listened to it yet, I strongly recommend you give it a try now. There are other, better quality recordings of the concerto on Youtube for you to listen to if you so wish.


  Op.39 No. 12: Le Festin d'Esope

This piece also comes from the Op.39 set of minor-key etudes - Le Festin d'Esope is a set of 25 variations based on a simple theme, with each variation acting as a sort of 'etude' in itself, which all flow one after another in a smart and logical fashion. I love this piece just because of the sheer creativity present within it. Some variations which really stand out for me (even though each one of them is highly interesting in their own right):

Var III: That 7th chord permeating this variation adds a uniquely humorous touch to the Aesop theme, not to mention those two bass "punctuation marks" on every 4th bar, which are also pretty funny! 

Vars IX-X: Really beautiful writing here. The harmonies themselves make you sink into the music.

Var XIII: Awkward, but original and hilarious!

Vars XIV-XV:  These deserve a special mention simply because of their difficulty (mostly in XV). 

Vars XVII-XVIII: Again, these are especially difficult - the right hand in XVII is a killer, and the left hand becomes one too in XVIII. Alkan is known to write passages like this where the music is not simply "crazy" but bat**** insane.

Vars XXI-XXII: "Alkan the Clown". These variations invoke a cheesy kind of happiness, especially in XXII, where the chromatic runs jumping across the keyboard really shows us Alkan's great sense of humour. No need to mention the penultimate bar, where Alkan obviously wanted the player to resemble somebody bashing on the keyboard...


Op.33 Grande Sonate 'Les quatre ages' 
2nd movement "30 ans"

The 2nd movement from this unique four movement 'sonate' is, in my opinion, one of Alkan's most beautiful compositions. No other piece of music has been able to fill me with quite so much nostalgia. 1:50 to 2:48, for some reason, brings me right back to my childhood (even though I have nothing to link my childhood with that melody, let alone Alkan!), and I really think this has a lot to say about Alkan as a composer. 


Op.31 Preludes, No.8: "La Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer"

And finally, we have this eerie and haunting piece from the Op.31 set of 25 preludes. Some of Alkan's pieces of music are able to evoke such vivid imagery, and I think this particular prelude is one of the prime examples of that. It's a calm, misty morning at the seaside, and somewhere amid the fog you begin to hear...


In my opinion, Alkan is truly one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated composers from the Romantic period. Today I entered Waterstone's, went over to the magazine section and took a look inside the BBC's Classical Music magazine, expecting to find some article on the subject of Alkan's 200th anniversary, but I couldn't find a thing. 

Shame, really. 

Hopefully this post gave any new-comers some insight into Alkan's work and influence as a composer, and perhaps some of you will become inclined to further explore Alkan's rich and wonderful works (try the Symphony for Solo Piano, or Le Chemin de Fer). 

Happy 200th anniversary!

1 comment:

  1. You completely missed my favourite Alkan work: Scherzo Focoso!
    Eight minutes of virtuosity, full of crazy leaps but also very great to listen to. I strongly recommend you to check this piece out.