Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Alkan - Comme Le Vent (Like The Wind)

By contemporary accounts of those that heard him play, Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 - 1888) had a technique equal to Liszt.  In fact, Liszt himself said Alkan had the finest technique he had ever seen. Even after Alkan became a recluse in 1848, on the odd occasion when he would play in public he retained his technique and amazed those who heard him.

Just why he became a recluse in 1848 is not certain. Before then he was seen regularly in public, was friends and neighbor to Chopin, knew Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, and played in the fashionable parlors and salons of Paris. But in 1848 he began to be seen less and less, gave up his appointment as the organist at the Paris Jewish Temple and stayed in his apartment, rarely admitting visitors or going out. He was passed over as the head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatory in 1848, which disappointed him greatly.  After 1848, he continued his life-long study of the Talmud and he went on composing. Late in his life he gave a series of concerts at the Erard piano company studios where he played not only some of his own compositions, but those of his favorite composers.

Most of Alkan's compositional output was for the piano. He did write some chamber music, two very short pieces for piano and orchestra, and an orchestral symphony that is lost. Like Chopin, he wrote etudes in all the major and minor keys for piano.  His Opus 35 consisted of 12 major key etudes, and Opus 39 were the minor key etudes.  Comme Le Vent ( Like The Wind) is the first etude in the book of minor key etudes. It's 20 pages long, and like the title implies, should be played like the wind. The metronome marking is eighth note = 160, the piece is in the rare time signature of 2/16, and most of the piece consists of triplet 32nd notes in the right hand. The piece is a virtual perpetuum mobile as the pace doesn't slacken for the 4 and a half minutes it takes to play it:


It is a real test of a pianist's endurance and control. It is a fitting beginning to a set of pieces that Ronald Smith, a pianist that had a great deal to do with the revival of Alkan's music, called 'Alkan's Frankenstein's monster'.  The twelve etudes that comprise the volume include a Concerto for solo piano in 3 movements, a symphony for solo piano in 4 movements, an overture, set of variations, and the rest of the pieces of the set.

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