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Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

14. A wizard at the keyboard.
Marc-André Hamelin plays Alkan

'Hamelin ... may perhaps come closest to the necromatic dazzle that the composer's own playing was said to display.'


As a musical prodigy at the Paris Conservatoire Charles Valentin Morhange (dit Alkan) won first prize for solfege at the age of seven, first prize for piano at the age of ten, and first prize for harmony at the age of thirteen. While still in his teens he was recognised as one of the supreme piano virtuosos of his time -- the only one, indeed, whom Liszt confessed to being scared of.

At the onset of what could have been legendary fame, however, he withdrew from public life. Though he continued prolifically to compose for his instrument music difficulty alike in technical dexterity and imaginative rebarbativeness, his hermeticism not surprisingly led to neglect. Prodigies, at least at this level, tend to alarm; and it was only through the support of other formidable and startling musicians that his name was kept alive. Liszt found him a genius akin to his own, if tougher and pricklier; Berlioz would probably have agreed with van Bulow's assessment of Alkan as 'the Berlioz of the piano'. Later, Busoni and his pupil Egon Petri promoted Alkan in the most effective way -- by playing his music; while the eccentrically formidable van Dieren and Sorabji championed him a technically and intellectually outsider congenial to their abstruse minds and luxuriant imaginations.

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Copyright © 1 December 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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