Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alkan - Overture From '12 Etudes In The Minor Keys'

Charles Valentine Alkan's music reflects his remarkable virtuosity on the piano. His mastery of the piano was equal to one of the greatest pianists that ever lived, Franz Liszt.  And while there is very little (if any) of Liszt's piano music that can be called 'easy', it applies even more dramatically to Alkan's.  The Alkan specialist Ronald Smith called the '12 Etudes In The Minor Keys Opus 39' Alkan's Frankenstein Monster because it grew into a set of monstrously difficult pieces both technically and musically.

But amid the difficulty lies a depth of musical feeling and expression that is Romantic to its core. They are true etudes in the Chopin sense in that they are expressions of a very talented, musical mind. The complexities are part of the effect of the music, not an end in themselves. That not every musician can 'bring off' Alkan's compositions is no doubt true. No musician can do justice to all composers. But the pianist that has a virtuoso's technique that is used for the sake of music expression, can reveal to the listener a composer of great power, tenderness and originality.

The 'Overture' of Opus 39 is the eleventh etude. Like etudes 4-7 (the 'Symphony For Piano
Solo'
) and etudes 8-10 (The 'Concerto For Piano Solo') number eleven is orchestral in feeling and writing. It begins with rapid minor chords in both hands with the bass punctuating the tonality in octaves. There is a slight slackening of the intensity, and the rapid chords come forth once again.  The music winds down to winds down to a pensive calmness. Once more the rumbling octaves in the bass quietly remind the listener of the beginning, then a section of very tender melody in the major comes to the fore and is expanded and varied. The next section is impassioned music that vaguely reminds my ear of the opening in feeling. It segues into a rippling statement of octaves in the right hand. This sections ends with chords and octaves up and down the keyboard until the music turns more quiet and ominous, then builds back to the octaves and chords. It alternates between the two until it reaches the last statement of the quiet and ominous. This leads to the coda, a brilliant theme in the major that rounds off the work.

Jack Gibbons
The pianist that wishes to tackle this piece is met with difficulties galore. Rapid octaves, leaps, chords that are a handful of notes, a dynamic range from a roar to a whisper and back again. Any pianist that can play this piece with musical expression is more than a virtuoso pianist, they are also a master musician.  The pianist in the accompanying video is Jack Gibbons, and English pianist of the highest order. He began playing Alkan early in his career, and was the first pianist to record the entire Opus 39 set digitally in 1995. He was also the first pianist to perform all twelve of the etudes in the set in a live concert, a practically superhuman feat. Gibbons also plays other composers, notably Chopin and Gershwin , and is a composer in his own right.

Gibbons was involved in a near fatal auto accident in 2001 with a subsequent long recovery. There was some question whether he would be able to play the piano again, but he returned to piano playing and gave the first performance in Carnegie Hall of Alkan's Symphony For Piano Solo in 2007. He continues to give recitals and appears as soloist with orchestras, along with composing.  He is one of my favorite pianists, and his recovery from his accident is an inspirational story.

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