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Volume II opens with the brief Pro Organo, whose title might suggest its having been composed specifically for organ rather than pedal-piano. A mere single page, it is for manuals only (thus offering the organist's feet relief more blessed than usual!) and hovers between C minor and C major, its chromaticisms reminiscent of Liszt's take on B-A-C-H; it explores the entire available register as it works its way towards a peremptory close that seems typical of Alkan but for the subdued nature of its two staccato chords that stand as a contrast to the slap-in-the-face more often favoured by the composer. Apparently one of the composer's earliest organ works, it remains unpublished at the time of writing.
The remaining six pedal studies follow. Like No 5, Nos 7 and 11 seem almost suggestive of tondichtungen in miniature in their development of contrasting material during the course of an unfolding narrative -- a bold and original achievement in its imaginative vision that is as ambitious as are the demands on the player to bring them off convincingly; towards the latter's close, Alkan explores the extreme registers of the pedals simultaneously. The coruscating ornamentation that besets No 9 seems to provide a perversely sardonic response to Alkan's earlier compatriots Couperin and Rameau at the expense of the hapless organist; surely this, rather than the sixth of the Grands Préludes, is the piece that Ronald Smith should have branded the composer's most bizarre creation! As the player is cruelly expected to keep this up for over three minutes, it is a monumental challenge even by Alkan's already exacting standards to maintain accuracy and clarity of articulation here; that Bowyer consistently achieves both almost beggars belief, so here is some evidence.
Listen -- Moderato in D major (Twelve Etudes for the feet only)
(Volume 2 track 4, 0:00-0:30) © 2007 Toccata Classics
(One can but hope that the producer had the considerate foresight to engage the services of a physiotherapist at the sessions). No 10 provides some relief from the rigours of double ornaments in a smooth scorrevole study frequently featuring four in the time of three. The concluding study, a chaconne with forty variations, would surely have fascinated Sorabji; it is conceived as a kind of summarising overview of many of the astonishing technical expectations that make the entire series what it is -- and which has evidently conspired to discourage almost all organists from doing anything about them in the past century and a half other than wring their (free) hands in despair.
Copyright © 29 June 2008
Alistair Hinton, Bath UK