Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pro organo. 11 pièces dans le style religieux. 12 études pour les pieds seulement:
Kevin Bowyer (org)
TOCCATA 31 (73:40)
One is tempted to note that Kevin Bowyer has single-handedly brought Alkan’s organ works to vibrant life after well over a century of neglect but for the palpable
fact that in this album and its predecessor (Toccata 30,
30:3) both hands and feet together perform, one after another, splendid and (if you’re following in score) stunning feats. Seriously, Bowyer’s first Alkan collection from two decades ago (Nimbus 5089,
13:1) revealed the works of the composer’s last creative phase to be of beguiling pith—smaller in scope than the towering piano works of the 1850s (e.g., the Symphonie and Concerto) but more subtly ambiguous, rife with engaging material worked with inexhaustible yet unpredictable invention, affording large satisfactions to an always minuscule audience. Even for the wavering, the sardonically titled
Impromptu on “A Mighty Fortress”
assumes a place among the grandest (and most tightly constructed) variation sets of the 19th century. Which is to say that if you do not already own that album you’re best advised to grab it fast. The third and final installment of Toccata’s conspectus will be the 25 Préludes, op. 31, designated for piano or organ.
Meanwhile, what have we here?
, playing a little over two minutes, exhibits little apart from compact compositional resourcefulness. The last six of the
12 Études pour les pieds seulement
, on the other hand, require—as do the Trois Grandes Études (right hand, left hand, hands together)—a phenomenal interpreter to lift them from the equivocal limbo of a splendiferous stunt into the demesne of non-specialist music. Not for nothing have I referred to Bowyer as the Marc-André Hamelin of the organ. Seeing what Alkan requires the feet unaided to wring from a pedal board is hair-raising by itself, but hearing those requirements realized with interpretive point is simply jaw dropping. Composed for a
—a piano equipped with a pedal-board (an instrument passing into oblivion as Alkan gave up the ghost)—the organ’s pedaled rumble unfortunately obscures lower parts in several of the Préludes. Curiously, Osamu Nakamura recorded these pieces on a piano (nla Escalier 8020)—his charmlessly clanking accounts demonstrate the futility of deaf literalism, though the contrast with Bowyer demonstrates how much the latter has divined in them.
But the meat of the program is in the
11 pièces dan le style religieux
, rounded off, as is its companion collection, the
11 grandes préludes
heard in the previous Toccata issue, with a transcription from Handel’s
. Nine of the
were recorded by Nicholas King in 1988 (Symposium 1059,
13:1), which collectors may wish to retain for the clarity of its closer, more intimate recording. But King too often plays it straight, so to speak, where Bowyer’s ear is cocked for Alkan’s quirky divagations, his tongue-in-cheek detours, in which, say, an innocent pastoral wanders into the valley of the shadow, or a peremptory summons leads (like a staircase in the Winchester Mystery House) to a blank wall. Too, King omits two-thirds of No. 11. So much for the obligatory invidious comparison. For the moments of menace or soaring grandeur mingling with the blithesome and
there is no comparison—Bowyer is the thing itself. As noted, the power of Bowyer’s Blackburn Cathedral instrument can obscure parts, but the geste of Alkan’s fancy nevertheless rings free. Extensive, elegant, and richly informed annotations by Malcolm MacDonald confect a final elegance. Enthusiastically recommended.
FANFARE: Adrian Corleonis
Works on This Recording
Pro organo in C minor by Charles Valentin Alkan
Kevin Bowyer (Organ)
Written: 02/16/1850; Paris, France
Length: 2 Minutes 19 Secs.
Messiah, HWV 56: Pastoral Symphony "Pifa" by George Frideric Handel
Kevin Bowyer (Organ)
Written: 1742; London, England
Length: 3 Minutes 2 Secs.
Notes: Arranger: Charles Valentin Alkan.
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