Sunday, March 31, 2019

Alkan - Symphony For Piano Solo

Alkan's Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs (Twelve Studies in all the minor keys), Op. 39 for solo piano were published in 1857. But  due to a combination of the difficulties and eccentricities of the works themselves and Alkan's lack of self promotion, only a few of the etudes were heard during his lifetime in the 1870's. None of them were to be heard again until  Eron Petri played the Symphony in 1938.

Alkan was a virtuoso pianist that rivaled Liszt in technique, and while not all of his piano works bristle with intense technical difficulties, the minor key etudes are certainly some of the most challenging  piano music ever composed.

Etudes number 4 - 7 constitute the symphony for piano solo, and it remains one of the few compositions by any composer designated as a symphony. It is in 4 movements.

I. Allegro -  The first movement of the symphony is in C minor and is in sonata form.
The opening theme in the left hand octaves is the basis of most of the other themes in the movement. The first theme shifts into the right hand and after transition material another motif  in E-flat major is heard. The exposition is repeated. The development section makes the most of the first theme by shifting key changes. The recapitulation brings back the first theme in the key of C minor and leads to a coda where the theme trades off between hands until a two-bar chromatic downward run in the right hand begins in single notes:
The run is repeated, this time with the third of the C minor chord added at the beginning and every 1st note of the 4-note sixteenth note groups in the run as well as a third added to every 5th note of the sixteenthnote group. This gives the effect of the run being in thirds. Also, it adds an accent in such a way as to break up the 12 sixteenth notes of 2 groups of 6  to 3 groups of 4 time in the right hand:

The run is repeated for a third time, this time with the fifth added to complete the C minor chord and ther 5th added to the a-flat major chord, thus giving the effect of the run in triads. It also gives the illusion of being in 3/4 time:
The coda moves towards a C major chord, but the chord changes to C minor to end the movement. Alkan stayed true to the form of the first movement of a symphony, almost classical in proportion, but included passion and changes of mood along the way.

II. Marche Funèbre - Andantino - The first edition of the etudes had the following on the title page: Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Uomo da bene (Funeral march on the death of a good man). No one knows to whom Alkan was referring to. Some think it might have been his father who had died two years before.
The theme is played legato over a staccato accompaniment. The movement is in F minor following the key scheme of the set of 12 as it is in a perfect 4th from the preceding movement. the middle section is more lyrical for contrast, and the march resumes. Before the end, a drum roll deep in the bass interrupts the march. A short coda reaches a climax before the music dies away and ends in F major.

III. Menuet - Hardly a menuet as known by Haydn and Mozart, this is a hectic scherzo in B-flat minor.
The energy of the scherzo dissolves into a lyrical trio that is in contrast. The scherzo returns and leads up to a short return of the trio until it ends in B-flat major.

IV. Finale - Presto -  The most technically challenging movements of the symphony. It is in E-flat minor, but modulates in and out of the home key.
The pace does not let up, even if the minor mood of the music changes to major. Breathlessly, it continues to run (with a few delicious dissonances on the way) until it finally runs itself out and ends with E-flat octaves in each hand.

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