Notes and Editorial Reviews
Amid general rejoicing and praise, it may be well to clear off some misconceptions. The album blurb reads, in part, “In the last three decades the staggeringly original piano music of . . . Alkan . . . has emerged from the darkness that had surrounded it over the past century. . . . But Alkan’s organ music—no less powerful and imaginative—has yet to become known, even to a specialist public. This is the first of three CDs representing all of Alkan’s unrecorded music for organ.” That’s good news—may it be so. Actually, the Alkan resuscitation—one may hardly speak of a “revival”—was kicked off by Raymond Lewenthal with a two-hour broadcast over WBAI, November 30, 1963, followed a year later by a classic and absolutely indispensable edition of
Alkan works for Schirmer (long and unaccountably out-of-print)—including Le festin d’Ésope, the Symphonie, the pithy, lilting Barcarolle, op. 65/6, and “Quasi-Faust” (the final hair-raising movement of the Grande sonate)—which Lewenthal recorded for RCA in 1965. Those performances remain sine qua non for their unique power, panache, and wit. Augmented by Lewenthal’s magisterial (which means, by the way, that pianists and listeners alike can learn from it) account of Liszt’s Hexameron, that album was issued on CD by Élan (see Fanfare 20:5) and is still available. In 1999, RCA released the program in “audiophile, high performance” sound—a short-lived issue but well worth tracking down. Meanwhile, across the water, Ronald Smith was performing a similar office for the composer—an LP of miniatures performed on period instruments, a small but pithy biography in 1976, a masterly conspectus of the music in 1987, and—above all—a three-LP trove of the stupendous op. 39 Études in 1979 (including the Symphonie, Concerto for Solo Piano, Le festin d’Ésope), and the pithy, bizarre Trois petites fantaisies, op. 41 (EMI SLS S100, Fanfare 2:3), performances which made it to cassettes and CDs piecemeal, on several labels, over the years. John Ogdon recorded the Concerto for Solo Piano, Alkan’s single mightiest work, in 1972, and Marc-André Hamelin in 1992. Hamelin has since given us stunning recorded performances of the Sonatine and the Grande sonate, the Symphonie and the Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique, to say nothing of his astounding tilt at the Trois grandes études, op. 76 (for left hand, right hand, and hands together, respectively), and Alkan’s audacious cadenza for the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto—all chronicled in Fanfare. And that’s to hit only the highlights. Most of those offerings, by the way, are still available.
The point of this recital is that Alkan has been a presence for over four decades and, despite stratospheric attentions, remains caviar to the general. His bizarre humor, which presumes a savvy few listeners possess, is disconcerting—a “Romantic” composer should be an earnest titan, like Liszt, or bubbling over with honest sentiment and sincere whimsy, like Schumann, not making impossible demands which, when they’re met, guy and mock you, playing upon your expectations only to send them up. Oh, wicked Alkan! Master of the musical double entendre—forked tongue in both cheeks. You never know when he’s joking. Or when he’s not. To even the titanic works—especially those whose fantastic difficulties limit them for adequate performance to perhaps a dozen pianists at any time (e.g., the encyclopedic demands and sheer stamina required to animate the Concerto’s first movement, or the fugue in “Quasi-Faust,” which demands that the pianist realize nine real parts simultaneously)—an aura of blague clings. Though there are deeply felt works in the present program, they’re strutted in the customary enigmatic manner—to the delight of the connoisseur and Alkan aficionado and the consternation of a broader public. I’d rather be wrong, but I doubt that this landmark album is setting the Thames—or the Hudson—on fire.
The album title, “Organ Music—Volume 1,” affords another tart twist. Not one of these works is for organ. All were written for pédalier, a piano equipped with a pedal-board, an instrument of which Alkan was the supreme master, which never caught on (despite the fact that Schumann also wrote pieces for it), and which was fast disappearing at the time of Alkan’s death in 1888. Alkan’s designation for all three collections is the unequivocal “pour Piano à Clavier de Pédales; ou ‘piano à 3 mains.’” Obviously, the allowance of three hands at a piano is a desperate makeshift, a concession to the publisher. So far gone is the pédalier today that attempts to find a specimen in usable condition have failed. Which is to say that a significant portion of Alkan’s quirkiest, pithiest, most fascinating music was bequeathed to an instrument that, for all practical purposes, no longer exists. It is performed here upon the organ as an expedient. Though generally effective, some pieces lose the clarity and detail necessary for optimum effect. Franck, to whom the op. 66 Préludes are dedicated, included Nos. 2 and 7 in his collection of 10 pieces drawn from Alkan’s pédalier works, Préludes et prières (Richault, 1889), arranged for organ and revealingly simplified (e.g., in No. 7, Alkan’s two and three voices on the pedal Franck reduces to a single line). With Busoni’s blessing, the distinguished Portuguese pianist, composer, and Liszt pupil, José Vianna da Motta, transcribed Benedictus and nine of the op. 66 Préludes for piano, four hands. Curiously, da Motta co-opts the op. 66 pieces to a metaphysical program of his own—taking Alkan from “revolt against humankind and nature” to “the state of the saint, the sage . . . the unio mystica”—while his arrangements clarify Alkan’s part-writing but thicken and aggrandize his textures. My own annotations for Benedictus and the individual numbers of the op. 66 set, with commentary on the da Motta arrangements, may be found on the All-Media Web site (www.allmusic.com), while downloadable reproductions of the sheet music are available at http: //piano.francais.free.fr/alkan/04_partitions_en.html, a French Web site richly devoted to Alkan. The da Motta arrangements had at least the utility of prompting Busoni to comment on the music, which he described as “of the warmest and deepest sentiment. And in this gathering, the Benedictus takes the highest place. To the right the Prières (op. 64), to the left the Préludes (op. 66), and in the center the Benedictus: grouped thus, the series resembles an exalted altarpiece.” Busoni is unequivocal: “Whoever may doubt Alkan’s significance and standing will find in this volume a startling proof of them.”
One may extend that by saying that whoever doubts Alkan’s standing as one of the titans of 19th-century music will find in this album a startling, abundant demonstration of his imagination, power, and significance. For those who haven’t heard, the phenomenal Kevin Bowyer is another of those stratospheric artists—a sort of Hamelin of the organ—who has kept Alkan’s name and achievements alive. Bowyer’s 1988 album of pédalier works (Nimbus 5089)—including the Prières, op. 64, the Petits préludes, and the coruscating Impromptu, op. 69—is still available and belongs, with the Lewenthal, Hamelin, and Ogdon performances, as a cornerstone of any Alkan collection. The present performances are no less idiomatically brilliant. Contrary to the claim that these are “first recordings,” one must in fairness note that—though not on the same exalted level— Nos. 1, 9, and 11 of the op. 66 Préudes are to be heard in serviceable performances by Nicholas King (Symposium 1059, with Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11 of the Pièces dans le style religieux, op. 72), while the horripilating studies for the pedals alone were essayed by Osamu Nakamura in 1992 (Escalier 8020), though he’s cheating by playing them on a keyboard, and not with his toes! Not all of them transcend their intended use as exercises—or stunts—and the inclusion of but half the set is wise. The remainder, presumably, will turn up in a future volume. But there’s enough here to give one a feel for the ways by which Alkan’s incredible, nearly impossible pedal technique extended the range of the pédalier—or Bowyer at the organ of Blackburn Cathedral—unto the uncanny. Sound is optimum, balancing the hushed or sinister moments and the whelming sonorities of the colossal utterances with detailed discretion. Extensive informed annotations by Malcolm Macdonald confect a final elegance. For Bowyer’s stupendous artistry no less than for the revelatory program, this exceeds all praise—not merely Want List or Hall of Fame material but preeminently among the great recorded performances of our new century. Toccata’s a small firm—don’t wait to grab this.
FANFARE: Adrian Corleonis
Works on This Recording
Grand Preludes (11) for Piano, Op. 66 by Charles Valentin Alkan
Kevin Bowyer (Organ)
Written: circa 1870; France
Venue: Blackburn Cathedral
Length: 49 Minutes 51 Secs.
Benedictus, Op. 54 by Charles Valentin Alkan
Kevin Bowyer (Organ)
Written: by 1859; France
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