Monday, 1 April 2013


Come this Sunday evening, Singapore will bear witness to the first ever performance here of Alkan's Concerto for Solo Piano, long regarded as one of piano literature's most fiendish works. The performer will be the indefatigable champion of pianistic lost causes KENNETH HAMILTON, who will also perform Chopin's Funeral March Sonata and the Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser Overture for some balance and semblance of sanity. The concert takes place at Esplanade Recital Studio at 7.30 pm.

Below is my introduction to Hamilton's programme, as printed in the programme booklet, and following that is the short interview I conducted with Hamilton on The Cult of Alkan.

The original LP of John Ogdon playing Alkan.
This music on CD may only be found in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series issued by Philips. Good luck trying to hunt it down.  


The inveterate pianophile’s first exposure to Alkan is akin to a JFK moment; you remember exactly the day it took place. For me, it was an afternoon after school in 1983, having made the short distance from Raffles Junior College’s Paterson Road campus to the record department of Tangs Superstore on Orchard Road. Those were the days when a department store actually had a music section that stocked classical records. Rummaging through the cut-out bin, I chanced upon an LP on the RCA label entitled John Ogdon plays Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano. On the black cover was a side-profile of a bearded man with erupting keyboards, spouting flames and sulphurous fumes. It looked more like a rock album, and at $8 just too good to pass up.

Once the stylus hit the first track, the sound of loud chords (in the exotic key of G sharp minor) struck at an alarming pace and volume assailed the ears. Not since the opening chords of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier or Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy has any piano music begun with such outright fury and vehemence. Here the piano takes on dual roles of soloist and orchestra, and with no respite to the pianist whatsoever. And this was just its first movement, humbly titled Étude No.8 from Alkan’s 12 Études in the minor keys Op.39, which lasts a good half-hour. The entire concerto would clock in at a staggering 50 minutes. This was supposed to be the Romantic era equivalent of Bach’s Italian Concerto, but old Johann Sebastian had nothing on Alkan in terms of scope and scale. Neither does Schumann’s Concerto sans orchestre Op.14, which seems like a pygmy by comparison.

So who was this Alkan? Charles-Valentin Morhange (1813-1888), a French composer of Jewish ancestry, who had taken his father’s name as his own. Alkan was a contemporary of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, and a piano virtuoso second to none, except to the great Liszt himself. He was also an utter eccentric and recluse, one who found great difficulty assimilating into polite society and the Establishment of musical academics and intellectuals. His fiendishly difficult scores was often regarded as too long and complex, too much effort for too little gain, and just too weird. Little wonder his music was little known until the second half of the 20th century, championed by the likes of Ogdon, Raymond Lewenthal, Ronald Smith, and later by Marc-André Hamelin, Alan Weiss, Bernard Ringeissen, Laurent Martin and this evening’s pianist Kenneth Hamilton.

The tradition of performing Alkan in Singapore has been limited to just three events. In 2004, Leslie Howard replaced the late Ronald Smith at the Singapore International Piano Festival and performed Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano (Op.39 Nos.4-7, a Singapore premiere) in a concert dedicated to the memory of Smith. In 2007, Kenneth Hamilton gave the long-awaited premiere of Le festin d’Esope (Aesop’s Feast, Op.39 No.12), the fantastical set of variations that closes the Op.39 Études. In 2012, Alkan’s transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 was the highlight of Hamilton’s 2-part recital 200 Years of the Piano. In each of these unforgettable performances, the pianists transformed the multitudes of notes on the page into something special, the pianistic equivalent of alchemy, turning the base metals of early Romantic excesses into aural gold. 

In the pages that follow, you will find an interview with Hamilton on The Cult of Alkan, which I hope will whet your interest on this curious and totally original pianist-composer. More importantly, hold on to the edge of your seat for Hamilton’s Singapore premiere of Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano. Don’t say you weren’t warned.       
Chang Tou Liang

KENNETH HAMILTON talks about his fascination about Alkan, one of classical music’s most eccentric and most misunderstood composers, and his extraordinary piano music.

This year, the world commemorates the bicentenaries of the birth of three great Romantic composers, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Charles-Valentin Morhange, aka Alkan (1813-1888). Somehow I have little doubt which of these three you feel closest to.

Well, as it happens, it’s Wagner! If I could sing, then I would certainly try to make a career with Wagner’s operas: phenomenal, astonishingly powerful music. Verdi, apart from La Traviata, has never really done much for me, although I can see why I ought to admire his music.  But if you ever heard me sing, you will realise why I have to play the piano — and when it comes to the piano, Alkan’s music fascinates me. He was an artistic extremist, and there is no doubt about that, and an uneven genius (the same is also true of every great 19th century keyboard composer apart from Chopin), but at his best, Alkan could match Chopin and Liszt note for note. The Concerto and Symphony for piano, for example, are utterly overwhelming conceptions.  

How did you first come to discover the music of Alkan?

With initial resistance! One of my former university professors, Hugh Macdonald, a great admirer of Alkan, introduced his music to me. He wrote the entry on the composer for the New Grove Dictionary of Music. When I was a student, he suggested I take a look at Alkan’s works, because I seemed to have the technique to tackle them. I did read through a few Alkan scores at that time, but did not really “get” the style. It all seemed to be sound and fury signifying nothing, or at least very little.

But a few years later, I tried again, and took up the Aesop’s Feast variations (Le Festin d’Esope). Alkan’s quirkiness now began to make more sense to me. I started to see the meaning behind the thickets of notes, and began to explore more of his music. I subsequently learned the ludicrously named Sonatina (actually about as far from a sonatina as you can get — like calling Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a divertimento.) and gingerly made my way to the Concerto for solo piano — that marathon of 19th century piano music.

Interestingly, he was one composer (just like Chopin and Medtner) for whom the piano was sine qua non. There was no piece he wrote which did not include the piano. 

That is more or less true. There is, however, the Monty Pythonesque Funeral March for a Dead Parrot, and a lost orchestral symphony, among one or two other “non keyboard” pieces. But basically you are right — Alkan’s imagination was almost always wedded to the piano, as was Chopin’s. This was typical of the “Parisian” pianist-composers of the era. Liszt, of course, attempted to break out of the strait jacket with his symphonic poems in the 1850s, but even he was accused of simply producing orchestrated “fantasias for piano”. That’s why he refused to publish solo piano arrangements of the symphonic poems under his own name, although he was perfectly happy to lend a helping hand to others who wished to do so.      

Continued in Part II

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