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ClassicsOnline Home » ALKAN: Preludes, Op. 31
Not the greatest Alkan, but interesting nonetheless
People who are familiar with the pyrotechnics and the occasionally radical harmonic language of the Sonatine, op. 61, the Festine d'Aesop op. 39 #12 and the Grand Sonata are going to be very surprised by this collection of rather introspective Preludes by Alkan.
The op. 31 Preludes are not the most compositionally even pieces Alkan composed, but they are an interesting set and the pieces get better as one progresses through the collection of Preludes.
The Preludes are organized into three sets of ten, eight and seven preludes, respectively. The first suite seems the weakest, to me -- nothing particularly outstanding, but pleasant nonetheless.
The second and third suites are much better, and the best of these pieces have a compositional integrity worthy of Schumann or Bizet. A few of the Preludes are absolutely lovely, especially nos. 12-16 and 21-22. Most of the Preludes are not particularly difficult and can be played by a talented intermediate pianist; nos. 5, 10, 20 and 24 require a more advanced technique and are closer to the virtuosic Alkan with which many people are familiar. No. 18 is probably the most harmonic adventurous of the set; no. 13 features a gorgeous melody in 5/4 meter (and is my favorite piece in the entire set).
The set is very nicely played by Laurent Martin who certainly has the sensitivity (and the technique!) to play this set convincingly. Martin's tone is lovely and his approach to rubato really accentuates the phrasing in a most musically satisfying way.
In concert performance, I wouldn't recommend performing the entire set, but a collection of a dozen or so of these Preludes would be very effective and would bring forth these pieces very nicely.more....
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
25 Préludes, dans tous les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 31
The name of Alkan was once joined with Chopin, Liszt,
Schumann and Brahms, as one of the greatest composers for the piano in the age
that followed the death of Beethoven. At the same time he won praise as one of
the most remarkable pianists of his time. Nevertheless much of his life was
spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society. In recent years there has
been a revival of interest in his music, led at the beginning of the twentieth
century by Busoni and furthered by other champions. This interest has yet to
result in any widespread attention to Alkan among performers, for whom he often
presents very considerable technical problems.
Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange, the eldest of the
five children of Alkan Morhange, a music-teacher whose forebears had settled in
Paris in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of the city. He and his brothers chose
to use their father's name in preference to the family name and all were to
make their careers in music in one way or another. Charles-Valentin Alkan made
his first concert appearance as a violinist at the age of seven in 1821. At the
Conservatoire he was a piano pupil of Joseph Zimmermann, future father-in-law
of Gounod and teacher of Bizet and César Franck, and won considerable success
as a child prodigy, exciting even the admiration of Cherubini. He enjoyed the
particular favour of aristocratic patrons, including the Princess de la Moskova
and other members of the Russian circle in Paris, his success prejudiced to his
momentary chagrin by the first appearance of the young Liszt. With Chopin he
felt greater affinity. The two had much in common, and both were to become
respected in Paris as private teachers to the aristocracy, although Chopin
never isolated himself from society, as Alkan was to, and his musical
innovations were to take another form.
In the 1830s, his studies at the Conservatoire now concluded
with great distinction, Alkan settled at an apartment in the Place d'Orléans.
He continued to busy himself as a composer, chiefly for the piano, publishing
music that Schumann, indulging in his early musical journalism, found false and
unnatural, these the least of his strictures. Certainly Schumann himself would
have found insuperable technical difficulties in the Trois Grandes Etudes of
1838, one for left hand, one for right hand, and the third for both hands
together. In March, 1838, after a series of concert appearances in Paris which
had established him as a performer of the first rank, Alkan appeared in a
recital with Chopin, before an enthusiastic audience. This seems to have been
his last public concert for some six years, during which it was rumoured that a
possible affaire with a married woman had led to the birth of a son, Elie
Miriam Delaborde, the future pianist and editor of some of Alkan's music.
Alkan's concert appearances in 1844 and 1845 were followed
by a further long period of silence and withdrawal from the concert platform.
1848 in particular brought a significant disappointment. Considered by many,
and certainly by himself, as the clear successor to Zimmermann at the
Conservatoire, he was passed over by the new Director, Auber, who chose to
appoint instead Marmontel, a younger musician for whom Alkan had little
respect, as is apparent from the letters he wrote supporting his own
candidature, enlisting George Sand among others in his cause. He gave a concert
in May, 1849, his last for the next 25 years.
Isolating himself from the general musical life of Paris,
Alkan continued in the following years to teach and, intermittently, to
compose. Protected from unwanted visitors by a vigilant concierge, he lived a
hypochondriac bachelor existence of obvious eccentricity, continuing his long-standing
interest in the scriptures and translating from the Hebrew Talmud and later
from the Syriac version of the New Testament. In 1873, however, he emerged from
retirement to offer a series of Six Petits Concerts de Musique Classique at the
Salons Erard, with which he had had an enduring association. As in his
programmes of forty years before, or those of Rubinstein's historical concerts,
he offered a remarkable conspectus of keyboard music, played with a classical
precision and a technique only slightly affected by his years. These concert
series seem to have continued intermittently until the time of his death in
1888, while the curious could hear him every Monday and Thursday at the Salle
Erard, where an instrument was at his disposal.
The manner of Alkan's death has been a matter of some
speculation. Although the narrative has been romantically embellished, it seems
probable that he died as the result of a domestic accident, when a cupboard or
book-case fell on him. Whether or not he died clutching a copy of the Talmud,
retrieved from the top shelf of the collapsing book-case, is open to doubt. The
story emphasises, at least, Alkan's religious and literary interests, offering
an interesting inverse parallel to the flamboyant career of his contemporary Liszt,
turned Abbé, who had died in lodgings in Bayreuth, attended by one of his young
female pupils, in 1886.
The 25 Preludes in all major and minor keys, Opus 31,
appeared in 1847, designed for piano or organ, or, no doubt, for the instrument
that Alkan particularly favoured, the pédalier or pianoforte with pedal-board,
for which Schumann and Gounod, among others, also wrote. The Preludes go
through all 24 keys, returning to a final Prayer in the affirmative original
key of C major. The first set of nine opens meditatively and proceeds in a
sequence of keys that moves alternately up a fourth and down a third, to F
minor in the second and to D flat major in the third, Dans le genre ancien, the
old style in question being nothing more ancient than Bach, heard through the
ears of Mendelssohn. Jewish tradition is at the root of the Prière du soir
(Evening Prayer), the rejoicing of Psalm 150 and the Cantor's chant of the
Sixth Prelude. The rhythm of Schubert and harmony of Schumann mark the
relatively cheerful Seventh Prelude, contrasted with La chanson de la folle au
bord de la mer (The Song of the Mad Woman on the Shore), where the deep tones
of the sea itself accompany the increasing tension of the song. The group ends
with Placiditas, as tranquil in mood as its title.
The second group of Preludes opens with a rapid fugal piece
in the key of A minor, leading to a pleasant trifle, Un petit rien. Le temps
qui n'est plus (Time Past) brings its own B flat minor melancholy, leading to
Busoni's favourite Prelude, inspired by a verse from the Song of Songs, "I
slept, but my heart watched". A rapid B minor Prelude, moving to B major,
is succeeded by Dans le genre gothique (In the Gothic Style), a Prelude of
beguilingly un-Gothic simplicity and the gentle melancholy of the sixteenth of
the series. Rêve d'amour (Dream of Love), with its shifting harmonies, and
conclusion marked "palpitanr', ends the set.
The third suite, which has the title Enseignement du piano
(Piano Instruction) starts with an expressive melody for the right hand, based
on a repeated rhythmic figure. The following Prelude is a morning prayer,
Prière du matin (Morning Prayer), followed by a study in octaves. A gentle
interlude in B flat major gives way to Anniversaire of apparent ingenuousness,
followed by a pair of Preludes, the second of which is an exercise in velocity,
calling for extreme rapidity and delicacy in the right hand. A C major Prayer
ends the work.
Born in Lyons, Laurent Martin was a pupil of Joseph
Benvenuti and Monique Haas at the Paris Conservatoire, later studying with
Pierre Sancan and winning distinction in a number of international piano
competitions. In 1973 he won the Maria Canals Prize in Barcelona, thereafter
involving himself in chamber music and in a solo career. In addition to
standard recital and concerto repertoire Laurent Martin has also paid
considerable attention to unjustly neglected piano music of the 19th century by
George Onslow, Alkan, Alexis de Castillon, and, from the present century, Federico
Mompou. In 1988 Valéry Giscard d'Estaing bestowed on him the Auvergnat de
I'annee prize for his promotion of the music of George Onslow and for the
creation of the Concerts de Vollore (1978) and Piano à Riom Festivals (1987).
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ALKAN: Preludes, Op. 31