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The next two studies continue Alkan's vision of the organist's feet as self-sufficient expressive force, creating virtues out of limitations rather as he did in his Op. 76 piano studies for left and right hand alone; these are prescient of Godowsky's Stüdien über die Etuden von Chopin which explore the total independence of each of the pianist's fingers (and no less than seventeen of them are for left hand alone). Study No 6 is the most ambitious and remarkable of the entire cycle; here, Alkan eschews tricky chords and two-part writing in favour of richly inventive and expressive monody centring on C sharp minor and extending over more than five minutes, though trills and other decorative figurations towards its end remind us that the need for the ultimate in technical excellence is never far away.

Volume I concludes with a set of Grands Préludes. These and the series of Pièces dans le style Réligieux in Volume II have three features in common; they each date from around 1867, are eleven in number and curiously have as a concluding pendant a transcription from Handel's Messiah. The brief Allegro that ushers in this cycle seems to continue in pedal-study vein in the manner of a toccata after J S Bach; throbbing bass figurations also make their menacing presence felt in the outer parts of the second prelude whose chains of shrieking mordents in the manuals only add to its unsettling impression. The series progresses through stark contrasts between sweet cantilenas, insistent march rhythms, chorale-like passages and frequent obsessiveness of expression, not least with rhythmic ostinati, with a passing nod to Jewish devotional music in No 7.

The longest and in some ways most remarkable of them all is oddly marked Langsam; its opening unfolding of D flat major harmony is reminiscent of the beginning of the slow movement of Beethoven's final quartet, Op 135 but, as the piece develops, a premonition of Bruckner in Adagio mode becomes it most salient characteristic (Malcolm MacDonald draws attention to other commentators having noted this), although near its close the melodic shapes seem almost more reminiscent of Chopin. The final prelude again begins by featuring the pedals predominantly, but here in a subdued and questing mood far from torrential virtuosity; Alkan seems pointedly to make the search for a definitive cadence a hard one, but the piece finally comes to rest in a triumphal statement of F sharp major. Restraint and faithfulness to the original -- reminiscent, perhaps, of Liszt's treatments of Schubert songs (as distinct from Godowsky's!) -- is the order of the day in the Handel transcription that closes the set; its Biblical background again draws a parallel to the Pièces dans le style Réligieux.

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Copyright © 29 June 2008 Alistair Hinton, Bath UK


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