Alkan and Hamelin: Two Names You Should Know

 Posted by on 15 December 2008 at 12:55 am  Art
Dec 152008

Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Alkan’s name is probably be foreign to most readers, and this shows no deficiency on their part. By and large, Alkan has been forgotten. Much of the blame for this unfortunate fact lies squarely with Alkan himself, whose introversion and cynicism lead him to lead much of his mature life in self-imposed seclusion. He spent, for instance, a 25 year period of his adult life without giving a public performance, despite being one of history’s greatest pianists. He did little in his lifetime to popularize his own work, which lead him to be neglected by the concert-going public. When he died in 1888, an obituary in Le menestrel quipped: “Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence.”

Alkan’s career as a pianist and composer was most active during the middle half of the 19th century, making him contemporaneous with both Chopin and Liszt, to whom Alkan can aptly be compared. All three composers were pianists writing primarily for the piano, and all three generated an incredibly varied and imaginative body of work. In the corpora of Chopin, Liszt, and Alkan we find compositions of breathtaking and delicate sensitivity situated alongside thunderous epics which place extreme technical demands upon the pianist daring enough to attempt their performance. Relevantly, all three also published influential, highly original sets of etudes, pieces of music which emphasize particular technical skills on the part of the musician performing them. Of these, Chopin’s etudes (Op. 12 and 25) were published first (in the 1830′s), and they marked a radically new approach to piano playing and composition. Far from being mere practice exercises, Chopin’s etudes were worthy of aesthetic contemplation as ends in themselves, quite apart from the workout they gave the performer. Liszt also published a collection of fiendishly difficult etudes – his Transcendental Etudes – which, along with Chopin’s, remain a staple of the traditional repertoire of concert pianists.

In contrast, Alkan’s “Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineurs” (Twelve studies in the minor keys, Op. 39 [1857]) have failed to be regularly featured in live performances. Part of the explanation of this phenomenon is doubtless Alkan’s obscurity amongst the listening public; pianists will not often program music that the public does not want to come hear. But over and above this, the 12 etudes which constitute Alkan’s Op.39 are some of the most ferociously difficult pieces in the piano literature. Taken together, Op.39 includes – amongst other things – an overture, a symphony, a concerto, and a set of theme and variations – all written for the piano alone. Of these, the symphony and concerto offer perhaps the richest pianistic experiences for the listener.

At this point, I must pause my discussion of Alkan and discuss for a moment one of my personal heroes, Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hamelin is, in my opinion, the greatest living pianist. Certainly he is the greatest living technician; his preternatural virtuosity often draws comparisons with Liszt himself (whose technique was indeed transcendental). But over and above Hamelin’s sheer ability to play, he possesses an artistic intellect which matches the power and speed of his hands; for Hamelin, virtuosity is merely a means to breathe life into the composer’s score, not a showboating end in itself. As a result of these remarkable qualities, Hamelin is able to masterfully perform not only dazzling virtuoso crowd-pleasers, but also the more restrained and delicate music of composers like Haydn, Albeniz, and Debussy. This is apparent if one listens to any Hamelin CD release; his recorded body of work occupies that rarefied air where superlatives fail.

When it comes to Alkan recordings, Hamelin has few peers and arguably no equals. While it is ultimately a matter of taste and preference whether one prefers Hamelin’s Alkan releases to those of Jack Gibbons, John Ogdon, or Ronald Smith, I find the call easy to make. Where others sometimes struggle to clearly render Alkan’s denser, more complex passages, Hamelin glides through with seemingly effortless aplomb. His boundless pianistic abilities overcome all barriers between the composer’s score and the listener’s ear in ways that can call into question what one previously regarded as humanly possible. This last claim may strike some as hyperbolic, but it is nevertheless sincere.

The best evidence for this bold claim comes from the experience of listening to Hamelin’s CD releases themselves – an experience for which there is no real substitute (short of seeing him live). The short snippets of Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano available on the Hyperion Records website are far too brief to properly appreciate the genius of either Hamelin or Alkan. But to give you a glimpse of how awesome the Hamelin/Alkan combination is, below are the two most badass videos you’ll see on YouTube today.

The first is the fourth movement finale of Alkan’s Symphony from Op.39. This work is symphonic in that it is designed to evoke the sense of hearing a full orchestra, replete with cellos, violins, woodwinds and all the rest. The piece is especially demanding on the performer, not just because he must struggle to play the right notes at the right times, but because he must also strive to bring out the subtle textures and inner voices that correspond to the different orchestral parts. I’ll let you be the judge as to how well Hamelin succeeds:

The second video also features a selection from Op.39, the first movement of Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano. Like the Symphony, the Concerto was concieved of orchestrally, with all the parts of the symphony represented in the score. But the Concerto outdoes the Symphony (which is no mean feat!) by introducing a solo part in addition to the orchestral elements. That’s right, folks, it’s the orchestra and soloist together, written for a single instrument and a single performer. The result is nothing short of astonishing. (Be sure to fasten your seatbelts before the climax kicks in around 5:35) :

The first movement alone of this massive concerto lasts for nearly half an hour (of which the above video is simply the final third), and there are still two more movements to follow. Taken as a whole, Alkan’s concerto (to say nothing of Op.39, of which it is simply a part) is a stupendous triumph whose finale will have your heart in your throat and your jaw on the floor. I still find it difficult not to leap into applause at the end, even when listening in the privacy of my own home. I’d urge any self-described lover of piano music (or classical music in general) to pick up a copy of the concerto for themselves. If what you seek from music is a glorious and exalted reminder of what it is open for human beings to achieve, few things satisfy like Alkan in the hands of Hamelin. And for those of you whose musical tastes preclude the pianistic, buy a copy for your friend or loved one who does enjoy this type of music. They’re guaranteed to be delighted.

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