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Like Michelangeli in the 20th century (and indeed also Jonathan Powell more recently), Alkan studied organ and violin as well as piano in his youth. Alkan and his younger contemporary Franck were pupils of François Benoist at Paris Conservatoire where they graduated (Alkan taking premier prix) in 1834 at a time when, as Smith states, 'even Bach's organ works were still considered unplayable in France'.
For some unknown reason, Alkan never pursued a career as an organist, so his subsequent attitude towards the instrument per se remains unclear. Since few of the pieces on these discs were specifically designated for organ, we can only speculate as to his expectations for them in the hands of future generations of organists. Toccata Classics' designation of the series Organ Works is, however, amply justified, as not one of the tracks sounds as though it had been written for any other instrument. The searing virtuosity and superhuman stamina required for Alkan's more extreme piano works is now well known, but even their most knuckle-busting passages barely rival the wholly unprecedented demands of his pedal writing, particularly in the Douze Études pour les pieds seulement which constitute forty minutes of the most orthopœdically dangerous ankle-snapping music in the entire organ literature -- even the pedal parts in Sorabji's three massive organ symphonies are, for the most part, comparatively mild from a technical standpoint, rarely venturing into the kind of physically punishing territory that might have made even a Nijinsky blanch ...
Irony is a notable trait in Alkan's music, so it is perhaps appropriate that among the revelations in these discs is a major irony of musical history -- that Alkan's rôle in the great French organ tradition counted for next to nothing. Widor and Vierne seemed at least to be aware of Alkan the organ composer and, in the generation that followed, the great Marcel Dupré uniquely considered his pedal studies to be (as Smith tells us) 'the complete and indispensable foundation of pedal technique' (one wonders what Messiaen thought). Such lofty endorsement notwithstanding, organ teachers have consistently resisted Alkan's work just as piano pedagogues have ensured off-limits status for Godowsky's monumental cycle of studies on the études of Chopin.
Unfamiliar repertoire and monstrous challenges are probably what Kevin Bowyer devours daily before breakfast. His enormous and wide-ranging discography and performing repertoire uniquely embraces on the one hand some of the most uncompromising examples of contemporary organ composition (Ferneyhough, Xenakis, Finnissy) and on the other, perhaps more predictably, the complete organ works of J S Bach, yet even in the latter there is a sting in the tail for those with conventional expectations of the concert organist, in that Bowyer has stated that he came to the organ music of Bach via Sorabji!
It is now twenty years since Bowyer stunned the listening public with the world première recording of the first (and, at a mere two hours, by far the smallest) of Sorabji's symphonies for organ solo; typically, he took this magnificent monsterpiece in his stride as though a cornerstone of organ repertoire and has recently embarked upon a five-year project (based in Glasgow and funded by that city's University Trust) to edit and perform all three Sorabji organ symphonies. Sorabji was one of Alkan's most fervent advocates. Bowyer has famously (if unusually for an organist) cited John Ogdon, a noted Alkan devotee, as one of his keyboard heroes. Each of these facts may throw some light on what drew Bowyer to his ground-breaking exploration of Alkan's organ works.
Copyright © 29 June 2008
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK