November 30 was the 200th anniversary of the birth Charles -Valentin Alkan (1813-88). He was a French keyboard virtuoso and composer. A child prodigy he spent most of his life in Paris where he formed close friendships with both Chopin and Liszt. Born in Paris he was descended from a Jewish Ashkenazic community that was based in Metz. In addition to his skill as a performer and composer he was fluent in Greek and Hebrew. Between 1848 and 1872 he withdrew from performing. This retreat was the prompted by Chopin’s death, which Alkan took very hard, and his failure to receive the professorship in piano at the Paris Conservatory. The post went to man whom whom Alkan and most of the leading Parisian intellectuals considered a mediocrity.

During this retreat he continued to compose. He also translated the Old and New testaments and the Apocrypha. These translations as well numerous compositions (including a symphony) are all lost. Almost all of his music is for keyboard, mostly piano. Alkan’s writing is interesting for the dazzling virtuosity it requires and for the formal complexity that makes up its structure. His work does not have the poetry of Chopin (but whose does?) nor the melodic invention of Liszt. If you have a taste for it, yours is clearly a specialized one. But there is a nobility about his work and he gets effects from a piano that are unique. In the hands of a great virtuoso like the Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, Alkan’s music is of great interest. Hamelin may have the most complete piano technique since the late Jorge Bollet.

Alkan - HamelinAlkan’s opus 39 contains 12 pieces, one for each of the minor keys. It’s an enormous work. Numbers 4-7 comprises the Symphony for Solo Piano, while numbers 8-10 are the Concerto for Solo Piano. The latter takes an hour to perform. The 12th of the series is a set of variations – Le festin d’Ésope (Aesop’s Feast). Hamelin’s version of the variations is below. it’s a breathtaking display of technical mastery. It’s taken from Hamelin’s album on the Hyperion label pictured above.

Alkan: Le Festin dÉsope

Below are complete performances of both the Symphony and Concerto for Solo Piano. jack Gibbons is the soloist on the former while Hamelin plays the latter.