French Jews were given full civil rights in 1791, so while Alkan’s grandparents, the Morhanges, who had moved to Paris in 1780, named their son Alkan Morhange, he in turn was allowed by 1813 to use French Christian names to name his son, Charles-Valentin who adopted Alkan as his surname. Young, precocious and prodigiously talented, Alkan (1813-88) soon became well-known as a pianist, although the first recital he gave was as a violinist.
Great friend and neighbour of Chopin, with whom he shared recitals and pupils, teacher of Nadia Boulanger’s father, Alkan moved in the highest Parisian circles. Liszt had enormous respect for his playing, though Alkan’s temperament was more akin to the introvert Chopin than the extrovert Liszt.
The shy sensitive young man in the portrait on the cover of Volume 1 of this series is now replaced by an older man with an impish look for Volume 2. Later, after Alkan retired from public life after Chopin’s death and his not being appointed to his teacher Zimmermann’s professorship at the Conservatoire he gradually brought an end to many friendships and got a reputation for serial misanthropy. He was a combination of opposites, very shy yet prickly and acerbic, the virtuoso pianist who often disliked performing in public, and is accurately described by William Alexander Eddie as a “conservative radical”.
This description applies to his music. Adventurous, passionate and solemn, sometimes all three, it has strong rhythms and a strict lack of rubato
, and often makes use of the keyboard’s and pedal-board’s extremes. The works on this release is part of a projected three-volume collection of Alkan’s complete music for pedal-piano and organ. Alkan had two apartments, one above the other, so that his playing of his Erard grand connected to a thirty-note pedal-board would less disturb the neighbours.
The disc opens with Pro Organo, for manuals only; whether this was to be the first in a longer cycle or suite is not known, but it serves as an excellent introduction to this intriguing recording. It has the Alkan’s hallmarks of high and low contrasting passages.
Do not consider the ‘Studies for Pedals Alone’ as a mere academic exercise; the six included here are rich in real music and make an enjoyable and fascinating programme. Many are fiendishly difficult and make enormous demands on the player. Indeed, Alkan dedicated one his organ works in Volume 1 to his friend Lefébure-Wély, who was not famed for writing difficult pedal parts. I do hope that the extraordinary Bombardo-Carillon for four feet will appear in Volume 3. The final Étude, a Chaconne with forty variations in all of four minutes, is a microcosm of Alkan’s writing.
The major portion of the recital is the dozen religious pieces, the last a delightful arrangement of the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ from Handel’s “Messiah”. The eleven original pieces are full of invention, some paying homage to Bach, some looking far forward, and bear serious investigation. Alkan’s ideas about ‘Style Religieux’ range from the most optimistic and flourished to the devotional. Among them, the fourth, marked Assez doucement, has a remarkable affinity with “Cwm Rhondda” written many years later, and the eleventh, Dolcemente, is the most mysterious and adventurous of the cycle.
Alkan, the virtuoso composer, is extremely well served by Kevin Bowyer, the virtuoso organist. His pedal work is breathtaking and his registrations so well thought through and just right for the moment.
The CD comes with a thick booklet including the organ specification and most excellent notes by Malcolm MacDonald. In first-rate sound, the rich acoustic of Blackburn Cathedral has been captured without losing any of the details of either the music or its interpretation. The third and final volume is eagerly awaited; in the meantime, this issue, as with Volume 1, comes very highly recommended as an authoritative journey through Alkan’s organ music.