Alkan – Who was Alkan?

Alkan_signature‘Charles-Valentin Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence. ”Alkan,” more than one reader will say, ”who is Alkan?” and indeed this paradoxical man is all but unknown to our generation.’

So begins one of Alkan’s obituaries, written in 1888, and the quote, from Le Ménéstrel, also opens the first of Ronald Smith‘s books on the composer:  Alkan – the Enigma (published Kahn & Averill).

Compared with those of Verdi and Wagner, one could almost think that Alkan’s bicentenary this year seems to have been largely forgotten. Thus it ever was – a semi-recluse, his music faded into obscurity after his death, until the late twentieth century revival by Raymond Lewenthal in the USA and Ronald Smith in the UK began to bring Alkan’s music to public awareness – and that’s how I came across Alkan, via Ronald’s recitals in Australia.

A quick googling of ‘Alkan ‘ turns up much healthy interest online, however – such as an article by Jack Gibbons on ‘The Myths of Alkan’, and the Alkan Society’s website, which lists a considerable number of concerts worldwide where Alkan has been heard this year – and last. New CDs are out – click on the link for Stephanie McCallum’s recording of the first book of Chants ; has a forum discussing Alkan; YouTube has many performances including this curiosity  – Oliver Latry playing Alkan’s own 1853 pédalier:

So, where to start with Alkan? For a good overall view – start here for biographical details and a list of works.

Where to start playing Alkan – well, it depends. For advanced pianists looking for a challenge, I would recommend the Sonatine Op 61.

The ever-popular Chant Op 38 No 1 is a perennial favourite –

-and ‘Le Tambour bat aux champs‘ bristles with menace.

Alkan in MiniatureA  selection of easier pieces can be found in this volume published by Billaudot :

and IMSLP is well stocked.

Performing Alkan is quite a responsibility, as it may be a first encounter for many in the audience. The large-scale works such as the Concerto for Solo Piano demand a first-class technique, a sense of structure and incredible stamina; introducing the themes to the audience first is a good way to enable new listeners to find their way in, or via good programme notes, perhaps with musical examples.

Or, follow the score here –

And for books about Alkan – Ronald Smith’s two volumes are authoritative, as well as highly readable. Copies are available on Amazon.

Alkan -2

Alkan 1

This entry was posted in Death in Venice - and Alkan and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Alkan – Who was Alkan?

  1. Mark Hodges says:

    Wow – thanks for the introduction! I must admit I’m not familiar with Alkan or his music. I love stumbling across things like this online. You learn something new every day – thanks for posting!

  2. mike fowle says:

    Yes, a very good introduction to this strange and shadowy figure. I heard Jack Gibbons recording of the Concerto for Solo Piano (a typical Alkan notion) and was blown away. Definitely worth exploring.

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