ALKAN: Grand Duo Concertant / Sonate de Concert / Piano Trio

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Charles Valentin Alkan (1813- 1888)

Grand duo concertant in F sharp minor for piano andviolin, Op.21

Sonate de concert in E major for piano and cello, op.


Trio in G minor for piano, violin and bass, Op. 30


The extensive works of Charles Valentin Alkan remainlargely overshadowed in international concert repertoire. Nevertheless Alkanhas had his champions, such as the co-editor of his music, Isidore Philipp(1863-1958) and Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), who regarded him as one of thefive greatest composers of piano music after Beethoven, with Chopin, Schumann, Lisztand Brahms, and shocked the Berlin public with the massive Alkan cadenza forthe Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven. Others included the pianists SergeyRachrnaninov (1873-1943), Harold Bauer (1873-1951) and Egon Petri (1881-1962),who played music by Alkan, although, regrettably, only occasionally. Morerecently the pianist Raymond Lewenthal (1926-1988) created a sensation with hisbroadcast of music by Alkan, while the English pianist Ronald Smith (1922- ) remainsan almost monomaniac interpreter of Alkan, as head of the London Alkan Societyand author of the first monograph on the composer, published in two volumes in1976, a nntable work. All these efforts, however, have not so far succeeded inbringing about a radical Alkan renaissance. This is partly a matter of conservativemusical taste. The generation of virtuosi, piano teachers and gifted amateurs,that, since the middle of the last century, by the constant study and performanceof the music of Alkan's contemporaries Chopin, Schnmann and Liszt, hasestablished their works as of lasting cultural value in the eyes of a wider groupof people, has failed to mobilise opinion in favour of Alkan. Although he was agreat virtuoso of the piano, he gave few concerts, particularly after the year offate 1848, and consequently had too few pupils of ability and generally led thelife of a recluse in his native city of Paris, which he virtually never left.

He published his works spasmodically over the years, living the rigorous lifeof one dedicated to composition.


The fact that Alkan's works include no symphonies, operas,oratorios or songs excluded him from the usual means in his century of reachinga wider audience.

Quite decisive then and now for the general reception ofAlkan's music is also the uncompromising nature of his piano-orientated creativity,shown in his tendency to short sketches (48 Esquisses, Op. 63), hiscourage in tackling macrostructures of unheard of length (Etudes up tothirty minutes long), harmonic and formal irony, as it were in the manner ofProkofiev, modernistic motor impetus, as in Le chemin de fer and Allegrobarbaro, perplexing banality, an anticipation of Mahler, underlyingenigmatic irony, a foretaste of Satie, and, last but not least, the sometimesexcessive technical demands, greater than the transcendental challenge of Liszt.


The visionary strength of this Quasi-Faust, a movementtitle in his Piano Sonata Op. 33, is also evident in the three chamberworks that Alkan wrote. The first of these, research has established (Harry Halbreichin An Alkan Reader published by Fayard in 1991), was the Trio far piano, violinand bass in G minor, Op. 30. Published in 1841, the work, possibly writtensometime earlier, starts Assez largement with a theme of rhythmicenergy, which is to be contrasted with a lyrical second subject. The almostcontinuous flow of semiquavers is concise, with the transitions between thesections of the movement cleverly hidden. In the middle the thematic materialappears in masterly simultaneous polyphony, partly the climax of the development,partly recapitulation in the major. In the Scherzo, also in G minor,there is a rapid and witty exchange between the instruments in contrast withthe dark bass melody of the Trio. The G major Lentement offersnovelty of formal structure. In the classical simplicity of the four-partstring writing abruptly appears a piano cadenza in the manner of Tchaikovsky (Alkannotes, with a wink, "Le violon et le basse comptent"). Theintroduction is repeated in shorter and intenser form and a short exchangeleads to an orchestral tremolo covering the extreme range of the threeinstruments. The Finale, in 6/8, demands above all of the pianist atremendous perpetuum mobile. Violin and cello, for the most part inexchange each with the other, propose a motivic and rhythmic counterpoint, untilthe appearance of the major coda, in which the rapid semiquaver movement istaken up by the strings. Alkan's Violin Sonata, the Grand duoconcel1ant pour piano et violon, in F sharp minor, Op. 21, was probably writtenabout 1840. The choice of key, F sharp minor and major and related keys, showsthat the composer, who himself also played the violin to some extent, treats theviolin as he did the piano, evident too in the particular lay-out of the violinpart, with its octaves in the highest positions. The first movement of thesonata offers a contrast between the archaic contour of the opening and thesoaring secondary theme in D major, repeated three times, the third time"avec exaltation". The heart of the work lies, without question, inthe slow movement, L 'enfer (Hell), which offers an unprecedented visionof the darkest abyss. The extreme closely spaced dissonances in the deepestrange of the piano create a song of mourning. The brilliant Finale, to beplayed as fast as possible, fluctuates between a hectic perpetuum mobile

and a fragmented and sometimes syncopated melodic outline. Alkan dedicated his ViolinSonata, which is here presented for the first time on compact disc, to theBelgian-born violinist and composer Christien Urhan (1790-1845).


Among the cello sonatas of the nineteenth century, afterthe five by Beethoven written between 1796 and 1815 and Chopin's Opus 65 of1845/6 but before the two by Brahms, written in 1865 and 1886, Alkan's CelloSonata in E major of 1856, Op, 47, occupies an important position,significant in the development of the form The arrangement of the string partis as rigorous as that of the violin sonata, with four homogenous and complementarymovements. The cyclical arrangement of keys, E major, A flat major, C major andE minor, is striking. The opening Allegro molto, in classical first movementform, starts in singing style. The expansive development section has frequentexchanges of scale passages and a working of motivic detail concentrated ofteninto expressive fugati. The 6/8 Siciliano of the Allegrettinocreates an apparently simple bass which, through surprising turns of harmony,offers a degree of uncertainty. In the rich chromaticism there lies a certain sarcasm,typical of Alkan's humour. The Jewish believer Alkan prefaces the Adagio

with a quotation from the Old Testament (Micah V. vii) "As dew from theLord how the Jewish people endure, awaiting help from God alone". Thegently sentimental cello theme seems to be inspired by Jewish sacred music. Aclearly modern rhythmic element appears against the piano cantilena in theplucked notes of the cello. The sonata ends with a virtuoso Finale allasaltarella. Here the technical demands on both players stand alone in the musicalliterature of the nineteenth century. The Sonata, like the Trio
Item number 8555352
Barcode 747313535224
Release date 12/01/2000
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Alkan, Charles-Valentin
Alkan, Charles-Valentin
Orchestras Trio, Alkan
Trio, Alkan
Disc: 1
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 30
1 I. Assez animae
2 II. L'enfer: Lentement
3 III. Finale: Aussi vite que possible
4 I. Allegro molto
5 II. Allegrettino
6 III. Adagio
7 IV. Finale alla saltarella: Prestissimo
8 I. Assez largement
9 II. (Scherzo): Tres vite
10 III. Lentement
11 IV. (Finale): Vite
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