Charles-Valentin Alkan, although essentially a recluse, was remarkably kind. Despite his desire to remain seperated from society, people who encountered him claimed that he was not only polite, but friendly. Though religiously anti-social, characterized by one picture of him holding an umbrella and facing away from the camera (1 of only 2 known photographs of the virtuoso, a portrait rounds out the 3 known images of the mysterious wonder), Alkan had a manner that apparently won over the people with whom he spoke. Alkan's life is mostly a mystery; and it was such even when he was alive due to his isolation. According to the liner notes, an obituary in 'Le Menestrel' stated that "Charles-Valentin Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence;" a bit cold, perhaps, but oddly telling of a man who had the abilities to be at the center of society's greatest circles but chose to remain alone. The article went on to state that Alkan was "an artist infinitely greater than thousands of his more celebrated and praised contemporaries". I would go so far as to say that he was infinitely more talented than many "greats" who came before him.
Even the manner of his death was bizarre; he was crushed as he reached for a book and the bookcase fell over on him; a strange, and sad, end to a strange life. But what he left behind, his compositions, speak volumes about the genius that he was.
Surprisingly, Alkan's first instrument was not the piano, his public debut, at age 7, a prodigious performance on the violin. His debut on piano came five years later at the age of 12 when he performed several of his own compositions. He attended and excelled in his studies at the Conservatoire (Paris) and became a favorite of his teacher, Joseph Zimmerman, eventual head of the piano department. Alkan's failure to be appointed as Zimmerman's replacement may lend to the public shunning that became a general life-long decision to live as a bit of a hermit; albeit a talented hermit.
His music, technically some of the most difficult piano work ever composed (so I understand), is strikingly different than the man. Brash, loud, and amazingly intense, his works are a wonder to this untrained ear (I don't play piano, but I can hear the complexity). His contemporaries lauded him as a wonder; Liszt stated that Alkan's technique was the greatest he had ever known. Alkan was described as the Berlioz of the piano. Alkan's etudes are considered the most significant after Chopin and Liszt, perhaps only less significant because he has so tragically fallen out of public view in to a sad and unfortunate obscurity that is now finally being broken by virtuoso pianists who are willing and able to record the complex pieces composed by one of history's greatest composer/pianists.
Performed masterfully by Hamelin is a stunning and exhausting version of Alkan's 'Concerto for Solo Piano', 3 movements from Alkan's Op. 39 which consists of 12 etudes, 4 of which were titled 'Symphony for Solo Piano'. Alkan apparently thought somewhat outside the box (if you'll excuse the cliche). These 3 movements, Allegro assai, Adagio, and Allegretto, are a wonder. The fact that only 2 hands are making this monstrous, thunderous jubilee of sound is amazing. The stamina required to perform such a piece, not even considering the complexity of the piece, is astounding. I can feel Hamelin's exhaustion grow as he performs these 3 astonishing movements.
Also included on the disc is Alkan's 3rd Book of Chants; again, outside the box. These consist of 6 pieces which are a showcase, once again, for virtuoso performance, but the pieces are somehow softer, more personal. They are warm and endearing; they draw you in and make you feel the emotion of the piece. It is said that Alkan's inspiration for this composition was Mendelssohn's 'Songs without Words'. I Vivante is lovely, soft and melodic. II Prestissimo is titled 'Esprits follets' ('Goblins') and is slightly more intense, active, yet still softer than the intensity of the 'Concerto'. III Canon: Assez vivement is said to be a lullaby; it is quite soothing, yet still complex and piercing. IV Tempo giusto is a polonaise, a dance, and therefore upbeat and powerful; rising in emotion and fury. V Vivacissimo: Horace et Lydie is, from what I understand, based upon one of Horace's Odes in which a dialogue has 2 conversing parties (Horace and Lydie) that must respond in the same number of verses. It is a mildly quick piece that is dark and light, deep and high, remarkably uplifting while remaining a bit 'uncomfortable'. The piece is a marvel. VI Barcarolle: Assez lentement is, much in the vein of the inspiration, Mendelssohn, a rolling, lavish and flavorsome piece that is slow and captivating. It is a beautiful piece that slowly sings the soft sea rhythms evoked by a barcarolle. The final piece is probably one of Alkan's more popular, if any of his pieces could be considered such.
Hamelin has proven that his virtuosity is unquestionable, if it ever was, in this eloquent and enveloping performance. His ability to handle the intensity of one movement and the restraint of the next is amazing. I can only imagine how difficult this must have been to perform; and yet Mr. Hamelin does so flawlessly. The recording is perfect. The sound is perfect. The performance is perfect.
This disc is priced slightly higher than most, but trust me when I tell you that it is worth the few extra dollars. The ability to transcend time and hear, perhaps, what dear Charles-Valentin Alkan did when he performed over 100 years ago, is worth the expense.
You must own this CD!
Recommended by my friend Amy; thank you! Her review above is excellent!