March 21, 2024


Charles-Valentin Alkan: Complete Piano Music, Volume 5—11 Pièces dans le Style Religieux et 1 transcription du “Messie” de Hændel, Op. 72; Etude from “Encyclopédie du Pianiste Compositeur”; Etude Alla-Barbaro. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $21.99.

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Complete Piano Music, Volume 6—Character Pieces & Grotesqueries: Petit conte; Pour Monsieur Gurkhaus; Jean qui pleure et Jean qui rit; Toccatina; Désir, fantaisie; Capriccio alla-soldatesca; Le tambour bat aux champs; Fantasticheria; Chapeau bas! 2da fantasticheria; Ma chère liberté et Ma chère servitude; Quasi-Caccia; Le chemin de fer; Trois petites fantaisies, Op. 41. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $21.99.

     The incredibly ambitious plan by Mark Viner and Piano Classics to record all the piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan is – well, “incredibly ambitious” pretty much sums it up. Nobody is even really sure how much piano music the famously reclusive, unbelievably talented, prodigiously skilled Alkan (1813-1888) wrote, given that some pieces are known to be lost while others have turned up seemingly out of nowhere. The Alkan piano series, originally planned to encompass 17 discs, is now projected to need 18, if not more.

     What is amazing is how many absolute gems the series includes; how many works that are far, far ahead of their time; how many pieces of prodigious difficulty and inordinate cleverness Alkan produced; and how Viner manages to surmount the technical demands of every single one of them – bringing out their underlying beauty and significance when they have any, simply allowing them to gleam and glitter and amaze when they have no particular musical importance but are among the finest display pieces ever written for the piano.

     The salient characteristics of both Alkan and Viner are very much in evidence in the fifth and sixth volumes of this monumental undertaking. The 11 Pièces dans le Style Religieux et 1 transcription du “Messie” de Hændel are typical of Alkan in several ways, not least in their title: Style Religieux is not explained and is not clear from the music itself (although Viner, in his highly knowledgeable and always-entertaining booklet notes, makes an effort to define the term), and the reason for ending the sequence with a transcription (which is not really a transcription but a rewriting and reimagining) of the Pastoral Symphony from Messiah is entirely unexplained except as a sort of capstone to the equally unexplained Style Religieux. The workings of Alkan’s mind are extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible, to fathom, the requirements of his piano music almost equally so. This particular 11-pieces-plus set is actually not among Alkan’s most innovative: every single element is well-thought-out, well-made and pianistically challenging, but only a few have the amazing peculiarities and quirkiness that define so much of this composer’s music. Among those, No. 4 has a decidedly strange and eerie minor-key middle section that sounds like a dark hypnotic fantasy, while No. 10 swaps themes and a pedal point between hands (a frequent Alkan characteristic) while tossing notes hither and thither and refusing to stick to a clearly defined key. Several other pieces in this set offer contrasting sections that are in some sense reconciled at the end – this is what Viner thinks represents Style Religieux – but it is the pianism rather than the pieces themselves that stays with listeners after the work ends.

     This fifth volume is one whose brief “fillers” turn out to be in many ways more interesting than its major work. Etude Alla-Barbaro is in a “barbaric” form that is best known from the Allegro barbaro contained within Alkan’s set of études in major keys, Op. 35. Alkan invented this “barbaro” concept and wrote several works using it – of which this specific one seems to have no right to exist. It is known from a single grainy photocopy taken from a lost original publication whose provenance is traceable even though the piece itself appears in no catalogue and has never been mentioned in any study of Alkan or his music. (Figuring out how to create a “complete” Alkan sequence really is enormously challenging.) The work calls out phrases, lurches ahead and back, and repeatedly sounds as if it is about to go out of control in its decidedly strange mixture of arpeggios, octaves, clarion calls, hunting rhythms and unexpected dissonances. It is most certainly a tour de force. Yet even this remarkable piece is overshadowed by the very early (1840) Etude from “Encyclopédie du Pianiste Compositeur,” here given its world première recording. It seems impossible for this piece even to exist, much less to be playable: extremely fast, bizarrely rhythmic, poundingly intense, packed with nonstop surprises and hammerings and scales and chords, this ultra-modern-sounding grotesquerie seems to have been dumped unceremoniously onto the keyboard from some sort of spacefaring race with a really twisted sense of humor. It is a genuine amazement, all the more so because it sounds today, in the 21st century, as if it is still ahead of its time.

     Speaking of grotesqueries, those make up almost the entirety of the sixth Viner/Alkan release, whose overall title of Character Pieces & Grotesqueries pretty well sums things up (abetted by an unusually well-chosen cover featuring highly individualized caricatures of people of all sorts, created in 1825 by Léopold Boilly). A couple of these little pieces are world première recordings: Pour Monsieur Gurkhaus, a looping-back-on-itself canon, and the fascinating Jean qui rit, the second of due fughe da camera. The first of these two pieces, Jean qui pleure, is in E minor and filled with rather studied pathos. But Jean qui rit is something else altogether: based on Fin ch’han dal vino from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it is recognizably fugal (until it lapses into something like a two-part invention near the end) but so packed with double trills, leaps around the keyboard, and tremendous hand stretches, that it seems unplayable. In fact, it was unplayable when Alkan wrote it in 1840, since it calls for a top C that did not exist on pianos until some 40 years later. It is a perfect example of just how far Alkan stretched compositional as well as performance boundaries.

     The rest of the pieces in this sixth sequence entry are all over the place, much as Alkan’s music itself tends to be (many of his effects involve placing the pianist’s hands at the upper and lower extremes of the keyboard simultaneously). Among the highlights of the CD is Capriccio alla-soldatesca, which imagines Napoleon returning from the dead to lead his skeletonized army from its graves for a final battle of vengeance – the work is macabre in the extreme. It was published as Op. 50 and is closely related to Op. 50bis, Le tambour bat aux champs, which also involves calls to arms of long-dead soldiers, accompanied by marchlike and dirgelike sections and repeated drumbeats – a scenario not far removed impressionistically from that of Mahler’s much later song Revelge (1899). This CD also includes several examples of paired pieces – a form often used by Alkan. The two Jean works are structured as a duality, as are the two labeled Ma chère liberté et Ma chère servitude, the first an ebullient piece in F-sharp and the second a dour and haunting one in A minor. There are also clear contrasts between the two items labeled Fantasticheria (“daydream” or “reverie”): the first is a short B minor rondo containing a chasing-its-tail canon (another Alkan characteristic, as in Pour Monsieur Gurkhaus); the much longer second is called “Hats off!” and mixes a sort-of-rondo with a sort-of-march.

     Alkan oddities crop up again and again among these works. For instance, the étude from 1844, Le chemin de fer, is nothing less than an extremely early musical portrayal of a railway journey – anticipating Eduard Strauss’ impressionistic Bahn frei polka by 25 years, and with greater attention paid to the perils of early passenger-train travel. And the Trois petites fantaisies of 1859, all of which are quite pleasurable to hear, conclude with a Presto packed with triplets, sustained chords, insistent thematic interruptions, flickering contrasts between the piano’s high and low registers, and keyboard leaps toward the end that cement Viner’s reputation (if such cementing is necessary) as an absolute master of some of the most difficult piano music ever written. There are sure to be more fireworks and many more amazements to come as this one-of-a-kind series marches, lurches, ambles and speeds along on an ever-fascinating journey of discovery.

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