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Charles-Valentin Alkan, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev

Igor Roma

Romantic Pieces For Piano

  • Type CD
  • Label Challenge Classics
  • UPC 0608917215427
  • Catalog number CC 72154
  • Release date 03 July 2006
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About the album

Three piano composers working in 19th century Paris raised the standard of the romantic piano music. Two of the names are easy to guess: Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. But what about the third? His name, Charles Valentin Alkan, is hardly known, even among true music connoisseurs. But those who have once heard perform Alkan’s fascinating piano works by one of those rare pianists who dare and can, will be forever surrendered. Who was this mysterious composer? Charles Valentin Alkan was born in 1813 in Paris into a Jewish family. His actual family name was ‘Morhange’. His father, director of a boarding school in the Marais, had as first name “Alkan”. This name is derived of the Hebrew Jochanan and means “The Lord has been merciful”. By using this as his artist name, Alkan underlined the importance he gave to his Jewish descent. Until his death he would remain faithful to the Jewish religion, and continue to thoroughly studying it. Charles Valentin Alkan was a true child prodigy. He had already been admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of 6. He received piano lessons from Joseph Zimmermann, an important piano teacher, who would later also be the teacher of a.o. César Franck and George Bizet. When he was 15 Alkan was a full grown piano virtuoso, who only had to fear competition from a second child prodigy, the twelve year old Franz Liszt, who had settled in Paris in 1823. Both young pianists became close friends. Just like Liszt Alkan gained a lot of success with his performances in the Paris salons and concert halls. In the meantime he had exchanged the family home in the Marais for an apartment in the much more fashionable surrounding of the Square d’Orléans, where many artists were settled, such as Alexandre Dumas, George Sand and Frédéric Chopin. Alkan continued to give many concerts until 1848, the year which confronted him with a major setback. He applied for the post of head of the piano department of the Conservatory, as successor to his former teacher Zimmermann, but he was passed by his less talented pupil Antoine Marmontel. A second blow was the death of Alkan’s best friend Frédéric Chopin in 1849. Around 1850 Alkan completely withdrew from public life. He gave piano lessons, composed and lived like a reclusive hermit, troubled by hypochondria and depressions. Between 1873 and 1877 he had a revival as a pianist, giving a series of “Petits Concerts” at the Salle Erard. Alkan died in solitude on 29 March 1888. There are two variants concerning the cause of his death. The romantic version is that he had climbed on a small ladder to get the Talmud from his bookcase, traditionally placed on the top shelf. Alkan supposedly fell, pulling down the bookcase with him. The prosaic version is that he was found dead in his kitchen. Although he enjoyed the admiration from the greatest of his colleagues, and was Chopin’s and Liszt’s equal, Alkan never reached the same fame. To a large extent this can be attributed to his secluded way of life. After his death one could read in the magazine Le Ménéstrel: “It was necessary for him to die in order to make him sense his existence.” The same article also speaks of “an artist buried alive, who is infinitely greater than thousands of his more cheered contemporaries.” Alkan wrote primarily piano works, which distinguish themselves by a predominantly highly demanding technical degree and a refreshing originality, in which humour and philosophical profundity go hand in hand. Titles of his works can be as witty as those by Rossini or Satie. Relatively well known are Alkan’s ‘12 danstores les tons mineurs’ opus 39 from 1857, which are of a different kind of virtuosity than those by Liszt, but have a comparative degree of difficulty. This is due to the often exceptionally great length of the Études in combination with the uninterrupted motoric movement in an extremely fast tempo, often lasting for many pages. This demands an exceptional stamina of the performer. Despite, but also thanks to this fascinating, technical element Alkan’s Études can generally be regarded as musically gripping. This certainly applies to the twelfth etude from opus 39, Le Festin d’Ésope. In this theme with 25 variations the performer needs to continuously shift between totally different playing techniques, such as very fast tone repetitions, great leaps, pearly runs, trills, full chords and octaves. Alkan applied these techniques in order to give a musical portrayal of the story which lies at the basis of Le Festin d’Ésope (The Feast of Aesop): Aesop, the legendary poet of fables from Greek antiquity, was a slave who was supposedly released because of his wisdom. Once he needed to prepare a banquet on two consecutive evenings, offered by his master Xanthos for some philosophers friends of his. Xanthos ordered him to prepare the most exquisite meal on one evening and the most ordinary on the other. On both evenings Aesop used the same basic dish: oxtongue, but prepared in many different ways. He thus showed that all good and evil in the world can be reduced to being one and the same. In Alkan’s interpretation the striking, eight bar theme represents the oxtongue, the variations the colourful array of dishes, symbolizing the variety of life’s events. One can occasionally hear unmistakable imitations of animal sounds, which may be obvious in a composition about a poet of fables, but then Alkan also was a lover of animals (he wrote a Funeral march for a dead parrot). In variation 22 we very clearly hear a barking dog (for the left hand Alkan wrote barking in the score) and in variation 23 one hears the unmistakable roar of a lion. The Saltarelle, opus 23 is technically equally impossible as many of Alkan’s Études. In a very fast tempo unassailable leaps have to be made, light as a feather and with many treacherous tone repetitions. Originally the saltarelle is an Italian jumping dance, comparable with the tarantella (also in 6/8 time), but even faster and lighter.

Much more than Alkan the two year older Franz Liszt (1811-1886) is regarded as the founding father of a new form of virtuosity. Just like Alkan Liszt published a volume of 12 Études. The definitive version of these 12 Études d’execution transcendante was published in 1858, one year after the publication of Alkan’s opus 39. However, an earlier version from 1838, published as Grandes Études, already existed. This volume was based on twelve Études from 1826. That very first version was still completely founded on the technique which the young Liszt had learned from his teacher Carl Czerny in Vienna before coming to Paris. It is interesting to see how these works went through a metamorphosis in twelve years, strongly influenced by the new possibilities of the pianos of Erard with their “mechanic with double echappement”, which Liszt encountered in Paris. We also see the influence of impulses Liszt had after hearing of the violin virtuoso Paganini and the Études of Chopin. In his revised edition of 1858 Liszt increased the playability. It was also not until then that he gave most Études programme titles. Number 11 he called “Harmonies du Soir” (“Evening harmonies”). Although the large intervals demand a highly developed piano technique, this sound painting is much more than a mere practise piece (the actual meaning of the word “étude”). Arthur Friedheim, one of Liszt’s most well known pupils, remembers in his autobiography (Life and Liszt), that he once played this work for Liszt, who at that time lived in the Villa d’Este in Tivoli. Friedheim writes: “Before I had time to begin he called me to the window. With a wide sweep of the arm he pointed out to the slanting rays of the declining sun which were mellowing the landscape with the delicate glamour of approaching twilight. ‘Play that’, he said. ‘There are your evening harmonies’.” Liszt composed the triptych Venezia e Napoli in 1859 as a supplement to his “Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année: Italië” (Years of pilgrimage, second year: Italy). In his three volumes Années de pèlerinage Liszt collected a series of recitations, inspired on his experiences of a.o. Nature and literature in Switzerland and Italy. Venezia e Napoli contains three transcriptions of typical melodies from the two Italian cities. The first two come from Venice. Gondoliera is a paraphrase on the canzonetta “La Biondina in Gondolotta” (The blonde girl in the little gondola) written by “Cavaliere Peruchini”, as Liszt wrote in the score. It is a barcarolle in flowing 6/8 time, with a typical Italian belcanto melody full with refined coloraturas. In the second movement Canzone, it again concerns a Venetian gondola song, taken from the opera Otello by Rossini. The closing Tarantella takes us to Napels. The tarantella is a south Italian folk dance, named after the tarantula, a poisonous spider. The wild, stirring dance in a fast 6/8 time was originally intended as a ritual of exorcism, when somebody was bitten by the tarantula. Because of its nature, a tarantella gives all occasions to create a virtuoso piano piece, in which all depends on speed, accuracy and a refined toucher. Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli can be regarded as one of the most successful examples.

Just like Liszt and Alkan Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was besides being a composer also a piano virtuoso. This explains why the suite Romeo and Juliet, which he compiled from piano transcriptions of movements from the ballet of the same name, is more than mere piano excerpts; it is attractive, pianistically interesting concert music. In 1934 the Kirov Theatre commissioned Prokofiev to compose a full evening’s ballet. Prokofiev chose the drama of Shakespeare, an author very popular in Russia in that period. After he had finished Romeo and Juliet the Bolshoi Theatre took over the commission. However, the ballet was never performed there, because the music was supposedly too difficult to dance to, even after numerous adjustments upon the request of the choreographer. It finally received its world premiere in 1938 in Brno (Czech Republic). It was premiered in Russia only two years later. When Prokofiev commenced working on the ballet, he had just returned to his homeland, after he had fled for the West at the outbreak of the October Revolution. There he joined the avant-garde composers. Back in Stalin Russia however, it became clear that a much more traditional composing style was expected of him. In Romeo and Juliet one hears that this in no way hindered the composer, but in fact created a challenge for him. In the 10 pieces for the piano suite chosen from the 52 movements of the ballet, Prokofiev did not exactly stick to the original order of the story. Instead, he let the logical musical development prevail. The suite opens with a Folk Dance (a kind of tarantella), followed by an expressive Street Scene and a Minuet, which is a fine example of Prokofiev’s “neoclassicism”: the translating of a classical dance form into a modern idiom. Movement 4, Juliet as a young girl, is a sparkling piece, tender with a sad undertone referring to Juliet’s fate. In Masks Prokofiev pulls out all the stops to evoke the atmosphere of the carnaval. The Montagues and Capulets is a sound painting of the two rival families. After this militant march calm returns in Friar Laurence, in which Prokofiev portrays the priest who consecrated the marriage of Romeo and Juliet and who would later give Juliet the sleeping potion. Then the composer gives a portrait of yet another one of the characters, Romeo’s flamboyant friend Mercutio. The Dance of the girls with lilies is a light intermezzo before Prokofiev allows Romeo to part from Juliet in the closing scene.

Christo Lelie  © 2001
Translation: Jeroen Tersteeg

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