Alkan: 25 Preludes Op 31, No 8 in Ab major, ‘La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer’  [4’42”]

Laurent Martin, piano

14 Charles-Valentin Alkan standing

Alkan as he preferred his public to see him

Alkan (1813–88), not to be confused, as Wikipedia perhaps unnecessarily warns, with the Canadian aluminium giant Alcan (1902–), was in reality one Charles Henri Valentin Morhange, Alkan being his father’s forename.  Famed if not actually feared as a pianist – the only one before whom his exact contemporary Liszt, no less, was said to be nervous of playing – he was a Parisian of jewish background, one of six children of extraordinary musically gifts.  Apart from his virtuosity and his music’s formal non-conformity and frequent fiendish difficulty of execution, he is remembered today for two things: the manner of his life and the manner of his death.  With time he developed from a public prodigy into a confirmed recluse, or at least an extremely private man.  Two photographs of him are extant, and that reproduced above is one of them, if proof of this were needed.  The other, almost disappointingly, shows he cannot have been a man without humour – nor indeed was he.  As it happens, even his demise was according to the usual account tragi-comic, a bookcase from which he was taking down a copy of the talmud crushing him to death, though this seems to be just one of many Alkan myths that came to fill the vacuum left by his lack of a public profile.

As to his actual compositions, which like Chopin’s are almost all for piano solo, their ideas about genre were indeed pretty out-there (he has been called the Berlioz of the piano), especially for their time.  Not only did he write a Symphony for solo piano and a Concerto for solo piano – both very strange concepts – but each of the movements of these two substantial works is one of the monumental set of 12 studies in minor keys, opus 39.  The present opus 31 (a Bachian scheme of one prelude in each key, though with 25 rather than 24 preludes, allowing a return to the starting point) isn’t one of his best known works, nor is the music particularly unconventional.  The piece I’ve chosen, as it happens, stands out for its oddity.  Starkly obsessive, palpably sinister, it might have been written by a musical Edgar Alan Poe (an almost exact contemporary), and there’s certainly more than a touch of grand guignol about this extraordinary ‘song of the madwoman on the seashore’.  After the resonantly lugubrious, tolling opening (depicting, according to Alkan biographer Ronald Smith, “the vast solitude of the sea”), the simple plaint (“the woman’s song”) from whose repetition the piece grows, enters at 0’23”.  The descent into madness may be traced from 2’19”, accelerating to a crisis by 2’54”, after which a catatonic kind of calm is restored.  The melody – in narrative terms, perhaps merely a memory of it – returns at 3’12”, but as a series of fragments fading into inarticulacy.

For a modern take on Alkan’s disturbed vision try Shattering sea, from Tori Amos’s 2011 album Night of hunters.

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