All About Alkan

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

You say you've never heard of Charles Valentin Morhange? OK, I admit he was better known as Alkan. If that still draws a blank, shame on you. You may have made it through the S.A.T.s, college and grad school. But you would never pass the O.C.T.s -- the Obscure Composers Test.

Alkan had nothing to do with the proposed merger of Alaska and Kansas. Nor is Alkan the new name for the Aluminum Can Company, although it should be. No, Alkan was a French pianist and composer (1813-1888). He is known by musical scholars and CD maniacs alike for his highly original, kooky compositions, his sense of humor, and the way he died -- or didn't die -- depending on what you read.

According to The Art of the Piano by David Dubal, Alkan "reached for his beloved Talmud, which was resting on top of a massive bookcase, [and] the structure toppled over, crushing the emaciated musician to death at 75." According to the program notes accompanying Ronald Smith's outstanding performance of his Piano Sonata, Op. 33 (Les Quatre Ages) on EMI Classics (CDM 7 64280 2), the above story is pure myth. Alkan died of natural causes.

Some accounts have it that Alkan was a highly religious recluse and misanthrope. Others that, when he disappeared from social life and public performance for years at a stretch, supposedly immersing himself in Talmudic and Biblical studies, he was actually having affairs with some of his piano pupils.

Be that as it may, for a guy who entered the Paris Conservatoire at the ripe old age of six and who, a bit later, spent much of his time translating the New Testament into French from the Peshitta or Syriac version, Alkan had quite a sense of humor.

For example, in his Monty Pythonesque composition for four singers and chamber ensemble, Marcia Funebre sulla Morte d'un Pappagallo... (Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot), Alkan parodies the operatic and religious music of his day. After a delightful introductory bogus funeral march, the singers enter with "As-tu déjeuné, Jacot?" Jacot is the French equivalent of Polly; "As-tu déjeuné" - which means "Have you eaten?" - is what the French say to their parrots when we would say "Polly wants a cracker?" None of the compositions of "P.D.Q. Bach" are any funnier than this. And none are as beautiful.

You'll find this farce recorded with superb digital sound and played to perfection by the Ensemble 2E 2M - accompanied by soprano Nell Froger, mezzo-soprano Anne Bartelloni, tenor Bruno Boterf and bass, François Fauche - on Adda (581285). It's part of Vol. 1 of a welcome series completely devoted to the music of Alkan.

But Alkan had a serious side as well, and he wrote at least one incredible composition which I think deserves to be on every classical collector's CD shelves: The Concerto for Solo Piano. This monumental piece (the first movement alone is just under a half-hour long) is beautifully performed by Marc-André Hamelin on the Music & Arts label (CD 724). The composition's unusual name is well deserved. It is so powerful you forget no orchestra is involved. The digital sound is superb, but there is one annoying problem. In the last movement one repeated note results in a vibration which sounds like the complaints of a constipated cat. How did they let that slip by?

Long as it is, the Concerto for Solo Piano comprises just three of the 12 Etudes in Minor Keys, Op. 39, Alkan's most ambitious work. Four other movements make up his Symphony for Solo Piano (available on Pearl GEMM CD 9966 and Marco Polo 8.223285, an all-digital recording). Opus 39 also includes a long Overture in B Minor (also on the Marco Polo CD) and Le Festin d'Esope, a 10-minute set of variations (a DDD CD is available on Fidelio 8839). You can find the first four études of Opus 39 on the analog EMI recording with Ronald Smith of the Piano Sonata, Op. 33 I mentioned above.

I understand from British reader Averil Kovacs that there are now two complete recordings of Alkan's Op. 39. Kovacs "highly recommends" the Ronald Smith reissue on APR 7031 (1996) -- a two-CD set -- but Averil adds: "Jack Gibbons has also recorded them (and played the whole lot in one go at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London!) on ASV CD DCS 227 (1995)."

So Alkan is not exactly a household word. I'm not saying he deserves to be one. But I don't think he merits the almost total neglect he has received for more than a century, either. Unlike Liszt and the other Romantics, he didn't do a very good job of blowing his own horn while he was alive. Of course not, since he wasn't a horn player. But then, neither was Liszt, and that didn't stop him! Since Alkan's death, pianists haven't rushed to perform his highly difficult, strenuous compositions either.

But, starting in the 1960's, Alkan's work has enjoyed a slow come-back, championed by pianist Raymond Lewenthal in the U.S. until his death (I hear a bookcase fell... only kidding), and by Ronald Smith in England. Smith devoted a prominent place in his programs to the composer, made several recordings, and even wrote a biography: Alkan the Enigma. John Ogdon, Michael Ponti and others have hopped on the bandwagon (or, at least, the pianowagon). Now pianist François Bou has become a card-carrying member of the fan club with Vol. 1 of Adda's Alkan series.

If you don't buy an Alkan CD right now, you may miss the chance to be the first on your block to have one. If you lived on my block, you'd already be too late.

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