If Alkan were not one of my favourite composers, I would still be tempted
to include him here, simply for the excuse of printing his picture!
Alkan is another composer who has suffered from a neglect which seems totally
inexplicable. He was a French composer, a contemporary of Liszt. Another
eccentric, he lived much of his life as a recluse, and is reputed to have
died, crushed by his falling bookcase, as he reached for a copy of the Talmud.
He was primarily a composer for the piano, although, as you may hear, there were other instrumental works, and he did write a symphony, now lost. But, like his contemporaries, Chopin and Liszt, the piano was his kingdom, and he wrote many works of enormous artistry and fearful virtuosity. Perhaps it is the difficulty of much of the music which makes it unpopular among pianists. A couple of honourable exceptions are two pianists who in recent years have helped to make his music known, Raymond Lewenthal in the US and Ronald Smith in Britain. And of course not forgetting Paul Hamelin in recent years.
Notable works are the Symphony for Solo Piano, in which instrumental textures appear throughout, and the Concerto for Solo Piano, fifty-odd minutes of unremitting virtuosity, and music which is just brimming with invention.
To give you a flavour of his piano music, I have included my own MIDI transcription of the first movement of the Symphony for Solo Piano. The rest of the Symphony includes an ironic (and slightly jaunty) funeral march, a wild scherzo and a whirlwind finale which does find time somehow for some respectable counterpoint!
Liszt had a very respectful attitude to Alkan, and would never play the piano in his presence. That there were musical influences as well can be heard in Alkan's Grande Sonate, where the second subject of the second movement is uncannily similar to the second subject of Liszt's Sonata, written five years later.
Alkan was a nineteenth-century composer with a twentieth-century musical aesthetic. He used driving rhythms, dramatic contrasts, sometimes bleak textures, and even, in Les Diablotins, tone-clusters!
The first extract, from the Grand Duo Concertant for Piano and Violin (note which instrument Alkan puts first!) is rather too conventional to be entirely representative of Alkan's normal style, although the music surrounding it has the normal Alkan characteristics! It is played by Tedi Papavrami and Huseyin Sermet, and is on the French label Valois, number V 4680.