The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
November 07, 2005

A Grand Undertaking - Kevin Bowyer performs Charles-Valentin Alkan's organ and pédalier works, recorded by Toccata Classics

Posted by David Conway

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Organ works, vol. 1
Kevin Bowyer, organ of Blackburn Cathedral
(Toccata Classics TOCC 0030)

David Conway welcomes some unusual music by an unusual composer.

Fifty years ago, the name of Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was all but forgotten. Born to a poor Jewish family in Paris, Alkan astounded the examiners at the Paris Conservatoire and gained a scholarship there at the age of 6. At the peak of his career, in the 1830s and 1840s, he was the friend and rival of Chopin and Liszt, and composer of a remarkable series of piano works which pushed harmony, rhythm and structure to unprecedented extremes, climaxing in his Grande Sonate and the fiendish Scherzo focoso of 1847.

Withdrawing abruptly from the concert-platform after 1848 (partly in pique after having been cheated of the Conservatoire professorship he deserved, despite George Sand lobbying on his behalf), he occupied himself with retranslating the Bible, from start to finish, and in composing even more extraordinary works, such as the sublime cello sonata op. 47, and the heroic 12 studies in all the minor keys, op. 39, which include a complete four movement symphony and a three movement concerto (the first movement of which lasts for about half-an-hour), all for piano solo. He emerged in the last years of his life to give a series of "petits concerts" in which he electrified the younger generation of French musicians such as Vincent d'Indy. Despite being championed by Busoni, Egon Petri and others in the first half of the twentieth century, the false, but irresistible, story of Alkan's death – crushed by a book-case whilst reaching for a volume of the Talmud – became all that was remembered of him. (Actually it seems that he was felled by "une porte-parapluie", which is perhaps even weirder).

Since the 1960s however, when the pioneering work of Ronald Smith in England and Raymond Lewenthal in America began to rescue his astonishing music from obscurity, the reputation of Alkan as one of the most original musical minds of the nineteenth century has been re-established, and nearly all of his major works are available on CD. For a conspectus of this unique oeuvre you cannot do better than the two double-albums compiling many of Smith's recordings on Gemini and EMI Double Forte, both at bargain prices. But younger artists are also recording Alkan now – a notable recent issue was Steven Osborne playing the 49 miniature Esquisses op. 63, running the gamut from neo-classicism to tone-clusters (in 1861!).

Most of Alkan's music was written for the keyboard – although we know that he also composed an orchestral symphony and a number of chamber works whose manuscripts seem to be lost forever (as is his Bible translation). But the keyboard did not only mean the piano. Alkan was also a virtuoso on the organ and on the pédalier piano – a grand piano with a pedal-board. This instrument had a vogue in the second quarter of the nineteenth century – Schumann was another devotee who wrote music for it – but its greatest exponents were undoubtedly Alkan and his illegitimate son, Elie Delaborde, his pupil (and later editor), who gave concerts in London on the pédalier in the 1880s. Today pédalier music has to be played either on the organ or, by "borrowing" a third hand, on the piano.

Now the new recording company Toccata Classics has determined to give this less known side of Alkan a hearing by preparing recordings of the organ and pédalier works, which will eventually comprise three CDs. They are performed, on the organ, by Kevin Bowyer, well known and justly fêted for his expeditions into the musical unknown. Toccata's Volume I includes the Benedictus, op. 54, originally written for pédalier, the first six of the 12 studies for the pedals alone, and the Eleven Grand Preludes and Transcription from Handel's Messiah, op. 66. Except for four of the op. 66 pieces, these are all first recordings. Toccata's set will complement Bowyer's earlier Alkan organ CD on the Nimbus label, giving complete cover of Alkan's pédalier and organ oeuvre.

I should I suppose declare my hand as an enthusiastic member of the Alkan Society, but even allowing for that, I found this disc a complete revelation; performances of great finesse and bravura, outstandingly recorded and played. Admittedly the six studies for pedals alone are more of a musical curiosity than great works of art – how Bowyer manages to play trills, sequences of four-part chords and a three-part fugue with two feet baffles the imagination.

The other pieces offer more food for musical thought. The Benedictus is a remarkable fusion of a jazz-like, measuredly sinister, ostinato idée fixe with hymn-like passages recalling one of Alkan's heros, Mendelssohn, but avoiding any lapse into mere religiosity at its grand climax. The op. 66 pieces, written for organ or pédalier, which take up most of the disc (50 minutes of its 76), give us a tour through many typical Alkanesque moods. They are dedicated to César Franck, another admirer of Alkan who made editions of some of these pieces for organ performance. No. 4 is built around a fandango-style march; no. 5, quasi adagio, seems a contemplation of the grandeur of an empty cathedral; no. 6 with its wildly varying episodes was described by Ronald Smith as:

one of Alkan's most bizarre inventions.
No. 7, marked alla giudesca, is a parody of the excesses of the synagogue cantors (hazzanim) of the day, with which Alkan, who remained a religious Jew throughout his life, would have been only too familiar. Smith labelled the exuberant no. 10, which demands the utmost in virtuosity, "a Cossack dance", though this perhaps understates its wildness. After the varied feast of the first 11 pieces of op. 66, the last is an absolutely chaste and straightforward transcription of the recitative "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" and the aria "Behold and see" from Handel's Messiah. But even here, ending (as did Handel) on an imperfect cadence, Alkan teases us into anticipating what might come next.

Whilst the Smith albums must still remain the starting-point for those who wish to acquaint themselves with Alkan's unparalleled musical universe, this recording and its successors will undoubtedly extend Alkan's reputation as an important figure in musical history. For if he had few fellow spirits as a pianist (apart from Delaborde), there can be no doubt, after hearing this disc, that he found true disciples in the French school of organists, running from Franck, Saint-Saëns and Widor through to Alain, Messaien and their present successors. This is a fascinating project and Bowyer and Toccata must be congratulated on their commitment and achievement.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement