Once upon a time, in the golden age of pianists, which everyone thinks was some “other” time, Charles Henri Valentin Morhange d’Alkan was mentioned as the equal of Chopin and Liszt in Paris, the “great three.” He died in 1888, a recluse, Talmud scholar, and no, he didn’t pull a bookshelf down over him while reaching for a volume on a high shelf.
Today, only diehard specialists seem to have heard the name. Fewer still have ever played a note of his (enormous) output of mostly solo piano music. Part of that may be due to its fiendish difficulty, though technical standards do improve, and every young lion seems to cut his teeth on them with little strain.
His music is of striking originality, both in storytelling through music, and piano texture. He wrote fewer of the trivial but brilliant variation sets on popular tunes than most other nineteenth century virtuosi. His conception of the piano was as a stand-alone symphony. In fact, there is a “Symphony” in four movements for piano, also a “Concerto” without orchestra. And so forth. This keeps ten fingers awfully busy!
My former mentor at Manhattan School of Music, the great pianist Raymond Lewenthal, used to stride through the halls in a black cape (lined with red satin) and top hat. We thought he was Alkan. He could infuse the music with the grandeur and ease it needs. The sense of playfulness he brought to the fiercely difficult “Le Festin d’Esope” (Aesop’s Feast) was awe inspiring, particularly the impish “flea” variation.
He had been preparing a biography of Alkan, but was “scooped” by British pianist Ronald Smith, to Lewenthal’s eternal bitter chagrin.
There are numerous short works that “are” within the reach of even young student pianists, lest you think it’s all mammoth works.
I mean how can you NOT like a guy who writes a plaintive little ditty called “The Song of the Madwoman by the Seashore”? No, it’s not Snooki on a bender. It’s pre-impressionism and expressionism all in one, in the user-unfriendly key of A Flat Minor (seven flats).
There’s a programmatic Piano Sonata “Quasi-Faust” depicting the ages of man: 20, 30, 40, 50, with titanic desire, struggle, bargaining, and waning strength, including a giant fugue.
Chamber music fanatics, there’s a Piano Trio. Your pianist will kill you if you say “hey let’s read through this.”
Due to his strange temperament, Alkan didn’t thrive as a parading virtuoso and he became a hermit. He did emerge in the late 1870s to give a series of historical recitals encompassing the entire repertoire as it was known at the time, similar to what Anton Rubinstein did. But he then went back into his little world, dying in 1888.
© 2012 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs