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Volume I opens with the longest single movement in the series to date; it is also, with but one small exception, the earliest although, as it postdates the monumental cello sonata and the two cycles of twelve piano studies, it is still very much a product of the mature Alkan. This Benedictus seems almost to anticipate the manner of the composer's Pièces dans le style Réligieux (a notion that also attracted Liszt, albeit with substantially different results) that occupy most of Volume II; however, as Malcolm MacDonald observes in his excellent liner notes, Alkan's 'is no simple expression of faith and comfort', as is clear from a comparison with Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (from Liszt's piano cycle Harmonies Poètiques et Réligieuses). For all the gruff, grim determination that informs the thrusting repetitions of its opening figurations,
Listen -- Benedictus
(Volume 1 track 1, 0:01-0:30) © 2005 Toccata Classics
it remains a wonder that this powerful piece has so long absented itself from organists' repertoires; it sounds to be a pleasure to play and is certainly a thrilling experience for the listener. It would be hard to imagine any musical environment in which Schubert and Berlioz could more effectively rub shoulders, yet at the same time the individual and forward-driving voice of Alkan himself rides confidently above all the influences that he devours.
We are next treated to the first six of those notorious dozen pedal studies. These date from the late 1860s and are undoubtedly a major piece of pioneering work; whilst even the best of them is arguably no match for the finest of Alkan's piano studies, there is considerably more to these pieces than mind-bogglingly freakish demands upon the player. The first gives little hint of the terrors to come but the second, for all its surface reticence, calls for four-note-chords (not for the last time in the cycle!)
Listen -- Moderato in A minor (Twelve Etudes for the feet only)
(Volume 1 track 3, 0:00-0:15) © 2005 Toccata Classics
whose accurate execution one might seem to presuppose a pair of specially designed shoes. Malcolm MacDonald notes the anticipation of Busoni's harmonic language in the otherwise contrapuntally-powered third study; Alkan was no stranger to Busonian prediction, the opening of the middle movement of his much earlier Grand Duo for violin and piano bearing a most uncanny resemblance to the first bars of the later composer's second sonata for the same forces.
Copyright © 29 June 2008
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK