A Thrilling Experience
Kevin Bowyer plays Alkan -
'... flawless technique and missionary commitment ...'
1809-1813 was an immensely rich era for composer births, encompassing Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Alkan, Verdi and Wagner, of whom all but one rapidly became 'household names' throughout the Western world, yet a whole century after the emergence of Liszt, Sorabji was moved to write that 'except for the great sonata and ... a few virtuoso pieces, Liszt is largely unknown to our audiences'. The same could hardly be said for the others except Alkan, almost all of whose of whose music remained in comparative obscurity until about half a century ago, despite his having garnered profound respect from his peers in his early years.
Alkan's flame was kept alight by handful of piano pedagogues such as Philipp and pianists such as Busoni, Petri and (occasionally) Arrau, but no detailed study of the composer was published until almost a century after his death; in the interim, only writers such as Sorabji drew occasional passionate attention to his work. We owe the significant revival of interest in Alkan's music (much of which is for his own instrument, the piano) to luminaries of the latter 20th century -- Raymond Lewenthal, John Ogdon and, above all, Ronald Smith. Since those days, his work has been widely recorded, performed and broadcast, thus affording a clearer and more comprehensive perspective of mid-19th century piano music.
Of those seven composers, only Mendelssohn and Liszt were known for their contributions to organ repertoire; Alkan's music for the instrument seems largely to have escaped the attention even of the majority of his devotees; the present CDs are therefore a remarkable coup for the Toccata Classics label, the more so in that they comprise almost entirely world première recordings. Only Ronald Smith, near the end of his two-volume study of Alkan, devotes to this subject an entire chapter, whose title Organ or Pedal-piano? reveals that most of this music was originally conceived for the instrument that Alkan described (in a fulsome letter to the theoretician Fétis) as 'the new piano à clavier de pédals'. This instrument was, however, soon destined for long-term obsolescence, although the Italian firm Borgato is once again manufacturing pedal-pianos; Borgato's brief historical overview of the instrument mentions Alkan's pedal-piano works and cites the earliest known example of a pedal clavichord as dating from all of five and a half centuries ago, revealing that the pedal-piano's demise was hardly the fate of some fanciful here-today-gone-tomorrow invention.
Alkan, like Schumann, wrote for pedal-piano from the 1840s, though most of his work for it dates from the following decade onwards. Smith's belief that Alkan produced 'some of the profoundest and most varied works for the medium since Bach' is a consciously controversial challenge to our preconceptions but is by no means as 'wildly improbable' or 'wilfully irresponsible' as he admits that it might at first seem; whilst little of this music is quite of the order of magnitude of Alkan's greatest piano works, it nevertheless includes much of great interest, not least in their revolutionary extensions of pedal technique.
Copyright © 29 June 2008
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK