Composer: Charles-Valentin Alkan (b. 1813 - d. 1888)
Performance date: 01/07/2019
Venue: Bantry Library
Composition Year: 1813 - 1888
Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ
Instrumentation: fl, ob, cl, bn, hn
Pascal Amoyel -
Emmanuelle Bertrand - [cello]
Charles-Valentin Alkan [1813 – 1888]
Sonate de Concert in E major for Cello and Piano Op.47
• Allegro molto
• Finale alla Saltarella
Charles-Valentin Alkan was one of the foremost pianists of his day; the equal, by all accounts, of his friends Chopin and Liszt. He was also a very fine composer but until recently his music was almost entirely forgotten. He remains one of the most intriguing and mysterious figures in nineteenth century music.
He came from a Jewish and highly musical family. His father Alkan Morhange ran a music school in Paris to prepare students to enter the Conservatoire. Most of the pupils there were Jewish. Jews had been given full legal rights in France in 1791 and this enabled Alkan Morhange’s children to take Christian first names. Their last name became Alkan. However Charles-Valentin practised orthodox Judaism all his life. He was fluent in Hebrew and Greek and translated the Bible into French (although this translation has since been lost). Alkan composed music for the Synagogue and used Jewish themes in some of his other work.
A child prodigy at the piano, Alkan published his opus 1 at the age of 14. He toured Europe as a virtuoso pianist while completing his studies at the Conservatoire. In 1838, at the age of 25, Alkan retired from the public stage. He did give some public concerts during the next fifty years, but remained largely in seclusion. He composed a good deal of piano music, some chamber music and a few orchestral works several of which have been lost.
Many reasons have been given for the decades of seclusion. Alkan’s health was not always good. Apart from composing, he was pre-occupied by his studies of Judaism and the Bible. He was not in tune with the musical fashions in Paris. He revered the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert who were not well regarded in Paris at the time. In addition he disliked the celebrity culture which surrounded the great virtuosi pianists.
As a performer, Alkan may have been conservative but as a composer, he was radical. Critics have noted that some of his orchestral music anticipates Brahms and Mahler. His piano and chamber music, including this Sonata de Concert opus 47, is bold, innovative and often very difficult to play. This Sonata was written in 1857 for an old friend, the cellist Auguste-Joseph Franchomme. It is one of the longest and arguably the best of his chamber works.
Embedded in the main themes of the sonata’s four movements are the same brief figures of notes. They bring a sense of unity to four completely different movements and they can be most obviously heard in the second and third movements. The sonata begins with a lilting cello theme. Bravura linking passages lead to a lyrical second subject. The lengthy development begins with staccato octave leaps which are followed by a sinister tremolo figure on the piano. A stormy and powerful development follows. This is Alkan’s musical world; lyrical and romantic, bold and bravura. The return to the opening theme is a wonderful quiet moment and the coda, though restrained by Alkan’s standards, leads to a passionate conclusion
The more relaxed second movement is a slow dance. There is a short trio section which is delightfully developed in conjunction with the main theme. Alkan prefaces the following adagio with a quotation from the Book of Micah “As a dew from the Lord; as the showers upon the grass that tarrieth not for man…” The movement has a quiet and hesitant introduction. Soon the main tune is introduced by the cello in its lower register. The piano responds with a new idea based on a tremolo figure played high in the treble accompanied by the pizzicato cello. These two contrasting themes form the basis of a wonderful slow movement.
The finale is a crazy rondo. A saltarella is an Italian dance in which leaping plays a prominent part. The music leaps and gallops at a furious pace. Here Alkan allows himself to become quite unrestrained as he provides a joyful conclusion to this magnificent sonata.
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