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Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
Biographical Sketch
Born in Paris, 30 November 1813, his name was Charles-Valentin Morhange. He (and his brothers) used their father's first name, Alkan, as their last. Charles-Valentin Alkan spent his life in and around Paris and died there on 29 March 1888.

Alkan was a prodigy. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of six, where he studied both piano and organ. His teachers included Joseph Zimmermann, who also taught Bizet, Franck, Gounod, and Thomas.

In his twenties, he played concerts in elegant social circles and taught piano. His friends included Liszt and Chopin, George Sand, and Victor Hugo. By the age of twenty-four, he had built a reputation as one of the great virtuoso pianists of his day, rivalling Liszt and Thalberg. And then he withdrew into private study, with only occasional forays into the limelight, for the remainder of his life. In spite of his early fame and technical acomplishment, he spent most of his life in obscurity, performing in public only occasionally. There are periods of his life about which little is known, other than that he was immersed in the study of Bible and Talmud.

Alkan seems to have had few followers. One composer who does appear to continue Alkan's direction is Sorabji, although Sorabji claimed that his model was Busoni. Alkan had admirers, among them Busoni and Anton Rubinstein, who dedicated a concerto to him.

He wrote almost exclusively for the piano, as did Chopin. His most important works are the Grande Sonate "Les Quatre Ages" (opus 33) and the two sets of Etudes in all the major and minor keys (opus 35 and opus 39). These last match even the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt in scale and difficulty. Three movements of opus 39 together form the Concerto for Solo Piano, which takes nearly an hour to play and presents the greatest challenges to the performer.

Alkan's music is very complex, exciting, and challenging to both the performer and, to a lesser degree, the listener. Difficulty in these works sometimes appears to be present for its own sake. While his music often has the energy and density of Liszt, it is somewhat less agreeable.

For many years after his death, Alkan's work was almost completely forgotten. There has been a steady revival of interest in his compositions over the course of the twentieth century. Some of the most capable pianists of today are playing and recording his works.

Bibliography
(Note that some of these books are out of print.)
  • Raymond Lewenthal, The Piano Music of Alkan
    Schirmer, 1964.
  • Brigitte Francois-Sappey, ed., Charles-Valentin Alkan
    Fayard (Paris) 1991.
  • Ronald Smith, Alkan, Volume One: The Enigma
    Kahn & Averill (London) 1976.
  • Ronald Smith, Alkan, Volume Two: The Music
    Kahn & Averill (London) or Taplinger, 1987.
  • Alkan, Le Festin d'Esope and Other Works for Solo Piano
    Selected and with Introductory Notes by Marc-André Hamelin.
    Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, New York, 1998. ISBN: 0486400662
    Contains the Symphonie (Op. 39, Nos. 4 - 7), Concerto (Op. 39, Nos. 8 - 10), Le Festin d'Esope (Op. 39, No. 12), Saltarelle (Op. 23), Barcarolle (Op. 65 No. 6) and Toccatina (Op. 75).

Societies


The Alkan Society
Nicholas King, Secretary
42 St Alban's Hill
Hemel Hempstead
Hertfordshire HP3 9NG (England)


La Societe Alkan
145, rue de Saussure
75017 Paris (France)

Selected recordings

TitlePerformer(s)Label and Catalog Number
Allegro barbaro from opus 35 Smith EMI CDM7 64280
Barcarolle, opus 65 #6 Marc-André Hamelin Hyperion CDA66794
Raymond LewenthalElan CD 82276
Bernard Ringeissen Harmonia Mundi HMA 190927
H. Sermet Valois (Musique Française) V 4659
BarcarolletteRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Bombardo-Carillon for pedal piano, 4 feet Caroline Clemmow and Anthony GoldstoneSymposium 1062
Concerto da Camera in a, opus 10 #1 Hamelin, Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Hyperion CDA66717
Concerto da Camera in c#, opus 10 #2 Hamelin, Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Hyperion CDA66717
Ponti, Angerer,
Südwestdt. Chamber Orch. Pforzheim
FSM 53 0 33
Turnabout 34740
Vox CD
Goldstone, Morhange Ensemble Symposium 1062
Concerto for Solo Piano, opus 39 #8 - 10 Marc-André Hamelin Music & Arts CD-724
John Ogdon RCA LSC-3192
Les DiablotinsRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Esquisses, opus 63 (Motifs)Laurent Martin Marco Polo 8.223352
H. Sermet Valois (Musique Française) V 4659
Etudes for Piano, opus 16 & 76 Ronald SmithEMI CDM7 69630
Arabesque Z 6604
Laurent MartinMarco Polo 8.223500
Etudes, opus 39 (complete)Ronald Smith Arabesque 8127
Appian APR 7031
Jack Gibbons ASV CD CDS 227
Etudes, opus 39 #1 - 3, 12 Smith EMI CDM7 64280
Etudes, opus 39 #1 - 7, 12 Ponti FSM 31 045
Candide CE 31045
Vox CDX 5151
Etudes, opus 39 #1, 2 Bernard Ringeissen Marco Polo 8.223285
Etude, opus 39 #12 "Le festin d'esope" Marc-André Hamelin Hyperion CDA66794
Raymond LewenthalElan CD 82276
Henning BraatenVictoria VCD 19002
Fa, opus 38b #2A. WeissFidelio 8839
Gigue, opus 24 Bernard Ringeissen Harmonia Mundi HMA 190927
Grand Duo Concertante for Violin & Piano, opus 21 Alkan Trio Marco Polo 8.223383
Dong-Suk Kang, O. Gardon Timpani 1C 1013
Tedi Papavrami, Hüseyin Sermet Valois V 4680
Grande Sonate, opus 33 "Les quatre Ages" Marc-André Hamelin Hyperion CDA66794
ReachDiscover International DICD 920362
WeissFidelio 8839
SmithEMI CDM7 64280
Arabesque 8140
Gros tempsRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Les Regrets de la NonetteSmithSymposium 1062
March #1 in a Bernard Ringeissen Harmonia Mundi HMA 190927
Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un pappagallo Singers from the Metropolitan Opera Studio;
Alfred Genovese; Leonard Arner; Henry Schuman, Oboes;
Loren Glickman, Bassoon; Raymond Lewenthal, conductor
Columbia M 30234
Marche funèbre, opus 26a SmithArabesque 6516
Marche triomphale, opus 26b SmithArabesque 6516
Nocturne #2 Bernard Ringeissen Harmonia Mundi HMA 190927
Nocturne, opus 22A. WeissFidelio 8839
Ouverture, opus 39 #11 Ringeissen Marco Polo 8.223285
Petite conteRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Prélude, opus 31 #8 SmithEMI CDM7 64280
Prélude, opus 31 #12A. WeissFidelio 8839
Préludes, opus 31 Olli Mustonen London 433055
Laurent Martin Marco Polo 8.223284
H. Sermet Valois (Musique Française) V 4659
Prelude in E, opus 66 #1 Nicholas KingSymposium 1062
Quartet in f (fragment)Members of the Morhange EnsembleSymposium 1062
Quasi-Faust, opus 33 #2Raymond LewenthalElan CD 82276
Rondo brillant for Quartet, opus 4 Christine Stevenson and the Morhange EnsembleSymposium 1062
Saltarelle, opus 23 Bernard Ringeissen Harmonia Mundi HMA 190927
Sonate de concert for Cello & Piano, opus 47 Hanani, Auer Finnadar 9030
Alkan Trio Marco Polo 8.223383
Y. Schiffoleau, O. Gardon Timpani 1C 1013
Christoph Henkel, H. SermetValois V 4680
ScherzettoRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Sonatine, opus 61 Marc-André Hamelin Hyperion CDA66794
Raymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Pierre ReachDiscover International DICD 920362
Bernard Ringeissen Harmonia Mundi HMA 190927
Smith Arabesque 6516
Studies in the Major Keys, opus 35 Stephanie McCallum Tall Poppies TP055
Bernard RingeissenMarco Polo 8.223351
Symphonie, opus 39 #4 - 7 Ringeissen Marco Polo 8.223285
Raymond LewenthalElan CD 82276
RCA LSC-2815
Mark Salman Titanic Ti-220
Le Tambour bat aux champsRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234
Toccatina, opus 75 H. Sermet Valois (Musique Française) V 4659
A. WeissFidelio 8839
Trio #1 in g for Piano, Violin & Cello Mirecourt Trio Genesis 1058/9
Trio for Piano, Violin & Cello, opus 30 Alkan Trio Marco Polo 8.223383
Dong-Suk Kang, Y. Schiffoleau, O. Gardon Timpani 1C 1013
Trois Grandes Etudes, opus 76 Marc-André Hamelin Hyperion CDA66765
Transcription of first movement of
Beethoven: Concerto no. 3, with cadenza
La VisionRaymond LewenthalColumbia M 30234

The best performances of Alkan are on the recent Hyperion discs with Marc-André Hamelin.

Other sites

Steve Smythe has a nice essay on Alkan.

Credits

  • Thanks to Vincent Chow for helpful additions to the discography.
  • Thanks to Ms. Averil Kovacs of the Alkan Societies for corrections and recommended recordings.
  • And thanks to Mark Starr for correcting Alkan's name, and for news of the Alkan Societies.
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