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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Finding Yourself Through Music II: Alkan

When you search for yourself, you may just find yourself.

Those words are particularly appropriate this morning.

Last night on the way home from the Mets game, I'm on the train platform at Queensboro Plaza. For entertainment, I'm listening to The Barber of Seville and reading the highly entertaining thriller The Book of the Dead, from the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, there is a scene where the bad guy is seducing the girl. And for musical accompaniment, he chooses (of all things) the piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

"Ah, yes. That is Alkan, the forgotten musical genius of the nineteenth century. You will never hear a more luxuriant, cerebral, technically challenging artist--never. When his pieces were first played-- a rare event, by the way since few pianists are up to the challenge--people thought them to be diabolically inspired. Even now, Alkan's music inspires strange behavior in listeners. Some think they smell smoke while listening; others find themselves trembling or growing faint.

"This piece is the Grande Sonate, "Les Quatre Âges." The Hamelin recording of course, I've never heard more assured virtuosity or more commanding finger technique." He paused, listening intently for a moment. "This fugal passage, for instance. If you count the octave doublings, it has more parts, than a pianist has fingers! I know you appreciate it…as few do."

Well, let us say that I was stunned. I'm a piano music geek and something of an Alkan fan. I have had that very recording for years. So I wake up today and determined to write about that very recording. Looking for a picture of the composer, I run across this blog post.

"Charles-Valentin Morhange, better known as Alkan (1813-1888), is one of the great, lost piano composers of 19th century France. Great, because his challenging, complex music is written on an epic scale with technical virtuosity that rivals the works of Franz Liszt. Lost, because Alkan was a misanthrope, and quite possibly an agoraphobe. He was also an Orthodox Jew who studied the Talmud and music with equal fervor. The opposite of the flamboyant Liszt, Alkan gave recitals infrequently, taught occasionally, and disappeared for years at a stretch, either travelling abroad or holed up in his Paris apartment, receiving no visitors.

Thanks to a few, brave pianists with fingers and nerves of steel, Alkan's dizzying music is now available to sample on CD. A good place to start is this 1994 recital disc by Marc-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion, featuring the Grande Sonate (Les Quatres Âges) and the Sonatine. The French-Canadian pianist meets the vast technical challenges of this music, but chooses fearsome accuracy over flashy showmanship. This is a performance of extreme dynamics. The artist slams the hammer down at the appropriate climactic moments, but then slows down with an elegant, expansive lyric touch."

Yes, that's right. I wrote those paragraphs about this very recording two years ago, right here on Superconductor. So once again, when you go looking around on the web, you sometimes find…yourself.

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