Although he was one of the most fascinating and enigmatic
composers of the 19th Century, only in the latter part of
the 20th Century did Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
begin to receive appreciation from modern-day audiences.
This belated acclaim was due in large part to the
championing efforts of pianists, such as Raymond
Lewenthal (1923-1988), Ronald Smith (1922-2004) and
Marc-André Hamelin (1961 – ).
During the 1830’s and 1840’s, Alkan was well known and
respected by his more famous contemporaries, such
as Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Frédéric Chopin
(1810-1849) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). In addition to
Alkan’s compositional gifts, Liszt referred to him as having
“…the biggest piano technique known to him.” Future
great pianists, such as Hans von Bulow (1830-1894),
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and even Sergei Rachmaninov
(1873-1943) were admirers and performers of Alkan’s music,
most of which was written for the solo piano. Unfortunately,
due to his to distaste for self-promotion, he easily lapsed
into a life of relative obscurity.
The two-CD set I heard, “Alkan: Complete Chamber Music,”
was released by APR UK during 2000. It’s an important set,
because it contains the first release of the premiere
recordings of three of Alkan’s chamber works: “The Grand
Duo Concertante for Violin and Piano, Op. 21” and
“The Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 30,” both date
from the early 1840’s. The “Sonate de Concert, for Piano
and Cello in E major, Op. 47” was written about 14 years
later, on an even more ambitious scale. Six of Alkan’s
works for solo piano were also featured in this set,
including three of the 12 studies in all of the major keys,
dating from 1847.
Ronald Smith was the pianist, author of the liner notes
and the primary organizing force behind this important
recording. This is fitting, because at the time these
works were released, he was also serving as President
of the Alkan Society. Clearly, Smith had a formidable
technique which was a prerequisite for this music, and
his performances do full justice to these challenging works.
Due to the fascinating musical language of the composer
and the ambitious scale on which they were conceived,
I found the three chamber works on these discs
particularly noteworthy. I believe that they deserve more
acclaim, and I’d place them on a level with just about
any other 19th Century work written for the same
instrumental configuration. Not surprisingly, a superb
pianist is required for all three works, and the string parts
are also quite challenging. This fascinating music bears
the stamp of a unique compositional voice.
The solo piano works provide a good sample of Alkan’s
strange and haunting sound world, and are not without
frequent touches of bizarre, parodistic effects,
particularly in the “Marche funèbre, for Piano in B major,
Op. 26” from 1844 and the “Capriccio alla soldatesca in
A minor, Opus 50,” both of which involve a “military”
For the chamber works, pianist Smith was joined by
cellist Moray Welsh and violinist James Clark, both of
whom admirably rose to the occasion, in spite of the
fact that their parts were intermittently dominated by
fiendishly difficult piano writing.
At this time, there are numerous fine recordings of
Alkan’s solo piano music; however, these discs are the
first and perhaps only recordings of the three chamber
works. Recorded in 1992, I believe the chamber pieces
are particularly important; in my mind, they’re downright
“revelatory.” The solo piano works were recorded in 1994.
Apparently, APR UK is affiliated with Nimbus Records,
Ltd., and this project deserves special commendation.
To my mind, Alkan deserves to be better known, and
I’d like to personally thank Ronald Smith for bringing
this project to fruition.