Monday, 1 April 2013


The opening bars of Alkan's Concerto for solo piano. Looks easy enough, but wait till you see the rest!

Let’s now talk a little about Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano, which you will be premiering in Singapore. Its three parts are Études No.8, 9 and 10 of Alkan’s 12 Études in the minor keys Op.39, a set which the late Alkan-specialist Ronald Smith endearingly referred to as “Frankenstein’s monster”. The work lasts close to 50 minutes, while its first movement is a good half-hour long. How does a pianist begin to approach a work like this?

With trepidation! It is actually the first movement that is the problem — the other two movements, whatever their difficulties, are of more or less normal length, clocking in at around 10 minutes each.

Despite his much-vaunted “eccentricity” Alkan knew very well that the first movement, at nearly half an hour’s playing time, vastly exceeded normal expectations. He indicated a possible cut in the score, which does tear the heart out of the movement (only a bit of the exposition, the cadenza and coda survive) but at least reduces it to roughly the same length as its two companions.

I’m not particularly appalled by this cut. In fact, I have occasionally played the shorter version of the piece when the overall length of the concert programme seemed to demand it, but you do lose a lot of wonderful music. And of course, you also lose the opportunity to admire the way Alkan expertly sustains his inspiration throughout the entire half hour. His imagination was really burning at white heat here. The pianist’s stamina has to be too —  and that is the challenge!    

Hans von Bulöw referred to Alkan as the “Berlioz of the piano”. Surely he was referring to this Concerto, which comes very close to the length of Symphonie Fantastique.

It certainly fits the concerto very well, although at the time he was thinking of the set of Studies in all the Major Keys (Op.35), which includes such programmatic novelties as a piece called Fire in the Neighbouring Village! Von Bülow, like most good Germans of his day, tended to associate “programme music” with the French, and especially Berlioz — hence Alkan almost automatically became “the Berlioz of the Piano”. 

I am not sure whether Alkan had students or disciples like Liszt did, but his pianistic legacy has had some influence on the likes of Busoni, Sorabji and Ronald Stevenson. Surely the finale of the Concerto, marked Allegretto alla barbaresca, and his Allegro barbaro (one of the Op.35 Études) had something to do with Bartok’s little piece of barbarism.

Yes indeed — I am sure Bartok knew that piece. Even more surprisingly, Brahms was well acquainted with some of Alkan’s music—at one time he even practised the Study for Two Hands Together — and Mendelssohn too. When Liszt discovered that one of his students had brought Le Festin d’Esope to a masterclass, he commented that Alkan “had written many fine things, which ought to be better known”. Busoni, as you say, was a great admirer, and even played (to vociferous complaints from the critics) Alkan’s gargantuan cadenza for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. And of course, Ronald Stevenson has created his own ambitious tribute to Alkan in the wittily-titled Festin d’Alkan — an acerbic counterpart to his intensely nostalgic Symphonic Elegy for Liszt, which I had the pleasure of premiering in Singapore a couple of years ago.   

Elie-Miriam Delaborde,
Alkan's illegitimate son.
Notice the
familial resemblance?
As for Alkan’s students—he had many of them, but most of them were aristocratic ladies who had no ambitions at all for a professional career. On the other hand, Alkan’s own illegitimate son, Elie-Miriam Delaborde, did study piano with his father, and himself became a composer, and a long-standing piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. Olga Samaroff was one of his pupils, so the “line”, as it were, carried on from there.    

What is it that grabs you most about Alkan? Is it the transcendental technique required for his music, his Gothic proclivities, his outrageous eccentricities, or his all round weirdness, wackiness and zaniness?

I’d say all of the above! You don’t quite get that combination anywhere else. But ultimately, none of his grotesqueries, nor his pianistic challenges, nor his obsessive inflexibilities would amount to much if the musical inspiration was not there. Alkan’s best music is worth listening to because it is good—not because it is grotesque!  

Which version of Alkan’s demise do you subscribe to? Death by falling bookcase, death in the kitchen, or death by depression and neglect?

To go back to Hugh Macdonald, his researches on that issue are definitive, or at least as definitive as we are likely to get, given the paucity of sources. It was not a falling bookcase that did for Alkan, but a combination of a seizure and a falling coat-stand (which he may have grabbed onto to steady himself, then toppled over in the process). The “bookcase” bit seems to have been a later piece of gossip. Alkan was well-known to have had academic interests, and “death by excessive scholarship” made a good story. A warning to us all!   

This question is aimed for the general listener. What else by Alkan should one listen to? What should be in the Alkan’s Greatest Hits album?

Unfortunately for the amateur pianist, Alkan’s best music is often his most difficult —and that includes Aesop’s Feast, the Symphony, Concerto and Sonatina. The Concerto is, in my view, his finest work, but there are many other splendid pieces, including the tremendously powerful psalm paraphrase By the Waters of Babylon, and the wittily varied Esquisses (Sketches). Anyone wanting to start exporing Alkan should investigate the exquisite Esquisses, and perhaps take a trip along the waters of Babylon

Don't miss this historic concert!

No comments: