Classical CD Reviews

ALKAN: Huits Prieres for Solo Piano; Neuf Preludes for Piano, Four Hands; Benediction Pedal Piano or Piano 3 Hands – Vincenzo Maltempo & Emanuele Delucchi, pianos – Toccata Classics

For the collector of rare keyboard repertory, this Alkan disc provides powerful and original materials.

Published on July 16, 2014

ALKAN: Huits Prieres for Solo Piano; Neuf Preludes for Piano, Four Hands; Benediction Pedal Piano or Piano 3 Hands – Vincenzo Maltempo & Emanuele Delucchi, pianos – Toccata Classics

ALKAN (trans. Da Motta): Huits Prieres for Solo Piano, Op. 64; Neuf Preludes for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 65; Benediction Pedal Piano or Piano Three Hands, Op. 54 – Vincenzo Maltempo & Emanuele Delucchi, pianos – Toccata Classics TOCC 0237, 85:30 (6/2/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

The Portuguese piano virtuoso Jose Vianna da Motta (1868-1948) early recognized the importance of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s music. So he made a number of transcriptions for solo and duo piano to foster Alkan’s reputation in performances, arranging eight of the organ Prieres and some of the music for the pedalier – the now obsolete pedal piano – for contemporary piano performance. Alkan himself enjoyed a virtuosity that extended beyond the piano –a facility that made Liszt nervous in his presence – to the organ, where he gained the premier prix d’orgue in 1834 at the Paris Conservatory. With the Erard pedalier, Alkan found a salon substitute for which other composers – notably Schumann and Franck – had also composed. Ronald Smith attests to the instrument’s “clanking resonance and direct attack.” The virtuosity of the mere pedal effects, combined with the scarcity of the pedalier—except to specialists and organists, account for the neglect of this aspect of Alkan’s collected oeuvre.

Jose Vianna da Motta became friends with Ferruccio Busoni, and both men made major contributions to the Liszt Complete Edition of 1916. It was Busoni who had consistently advocated for Alkan. In 1901, da Motta had issued his own transcriptions of Alkan’s 13 Prieres of 1866, now made possible on the modern solo piano without any special pedal-board. For the Alkan Preludes, da Motta indicated that “the most delicate and most intimate of these pieces demand performance by a single person,” eschewing the idea that an extra pair of hands should realize the pedal parts of the Prieres.

Immediately, from the G Major Priere, we can hear Alkan’s tenuous modalities, poised between the tonic and C Minor. A kind of misterioso or religious cadence enters No. 2 in A, while the striking No. 3 in B Minor proffers what commentator Malcolm MacDonald calls “a Hebraic melody” that builds to a Mussorgsky-like E Major coda. The C Major Maestoso No. 4 dominates the set of eight pieces, its triumphant annunciation played against a Liszt-like series of rotating, right-hand arpeggios of “celestial” character. As an encore piece, this one opus would serve Maltempo well. Religious fervor revives in No. 5, Deus Sabaoth, a resounding exercise in contrapuntal fanfares, marked quasi trombe. The No. 6 is marked Doucement, an E Major Andantino that proffers bell-effects in light textures we might ascribe to Mendelssohn or Grieg. The penultimate No. 7 “Ingenuamente” prayer falls into three sections, the first indeed “ingenuous,” but soon evolving to a sec variation in spare chords, akin to the first keyboard announcement of the theme in the last movement of the Saint-Saens C Minor Concerto. Alkan’s music then gains momentum to ascend to a chorale, grandiose, with passing dissonances. The F Major Allegretto that concludes the set reminds us of a Beethoven bagatelle or Schubert contredanse, rather martial in spirit. As the polyphony increases, the thick texture subdues the charm and fades away in an extended fermata. 

Vianna da Motta transcribed in 1907 nine of the eleven Preludes from Alkan’s ambitious 1867 Grands Preludes et 1 Transcription du Messie de Haendel, Op. 66.  The architecture Alkan utilized sets key relations in thirds through relative major and minor keys. Vianna de Motta dedicated his Neuf Preludes to Paris Conservatory professor Isidore Philipp. The arrangement for four hands means to maintain the unity of a single instrument while exploiting conflicted polyphony that moves to what da Motta calls “supreme deliverance. . .religious redemption.” Recall that Liszt, too, harbored spiritual ambitions even in the midst of diableries. The knotty G Minor opener (originally No. 4) is marked Moderatamente, a kind off-beat apocalyptic march that crosses Beethoven with Rachmaninov and becomes wickedly bravura, ending in a blazing coda.  The mostly cantabile and parlando No. 3 in B-flat Major reminds us of Gounod’s Ave Maria and ends in octaves, unisono.  A D Minor Lisztian gallop appears for Alkan’s No. 2, a turbulent storm with a wisp of a middle section, Sostenutissimo. More Lisztian bombast resounds for No. 8 in F Minor, Tempo giusto. The middle section could have been lifted from a late Beethoven sonata. Alkan’s No. 5 is also da Motta’s, a Quasi Adagio in E-flat that imparts religiously operatic feelings that flame up before they die away in the final measures.

The No. 6 in C Minor Andantino has elicited the epithet “a piece of irresistible perversity” from Alkan acolyte Ronald Smith. Both tragic and obsessive, the piece fixates on a high G that invokes a Dantesque coda of visionary power.  No. 7 in A-flat Andante bears the indication Alla giudesca, a reflection of a distinctly “Jewish” influence. The piece is set as a labyrinthine cantor’s song with a “choir’s” symphonic response. The ensuing piece, a Lento in F-sharp Major – Liszt’s preferred key for mysticism – perhaps invokes visions of the Kabala, lifting to the light only to be cast down into darkness. The last and longest Prelude in D-flat Major, Adagio, bears what da Motta calls a synoptic “religious feeling” that “ascends. . .above life and the world.” This is Alkan’s musical equivalent of Nietzsche’s amor fati, a Dionysian sensibility that accepts all of life, forward and backward.

The 1859 Benedictus Alkan dedicated to Joseph d’Ortigue, an authority on and critic of church music. Vianna da Motta felt that Alkan’s clear requirement of “a 3 mains” warranted a second player’s “symphonic antiphony” rather than a duet at one keyboard. The piece explores a spiritual agon of intense devotion, moving from D Minor to a series of “false hopes” in celestial C Major and F Major that by degrees evolve into a “final trump” in D Major. If this intricate music reminds us of anyone else’s over-wrought journeys of the soul, my vote would be for Berlioz.

—Gary Lemco




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