Jack Gibbons London 'Alkanathon' - February 1996

Jack Gibbons gave the first London performance (as a complete set) of Alkan's Op. 39 studies on 15th February 1996 at the RFH2 (aka Queen Elizabeth Hall).

A good promotional link-up with Classic FM radio station led to a full house, which was quite remarkable in view of the programme (3+ hours of relentless Alkan). Sales of Gibbons' ASV recording of the same music during the interval suggested that people liked what they heard. Some of the pieces were prefaced with some entertaining explanations from a very relaxed-looking Gibbons, which further increased the accessibility of this marvellous music to a wider public.

A full Q.E. Hall can be quite a dead acoustic, and so it was at the start. I am not sure if the acoustic 'enhancement' can be altered dynamically, but things seemed better after the first couple of pieces. Someone should tell the management that a few flowers or some other form of decoration would make the stage here seem less like a warehouse floor!

As for the playing, Gibbons is a very natural and honest pianist with a fresh, open tone and no faking of any difficult passages. One can get blasé about the difficulty of these pieces, after hearing them expertly played on CD. Make no mistake, this stuff is not for amateurs, and Gibbons now has a mastery of the notes to the extent that he is to be seen smiling, and even grinning his way through some of Alkan's more outrageous passages.

In comparison with last year's Oxford recital of 'the Alkanathon', the first three studies were a little disappointing (but this could be blamed on the acoustic). With the Symphony however (Studies 4 thru 7), we were able to enjoy full-blooded virtuosity of the highest order. I would say that Gibbons plays the Symphony as well as anybody I have heard, and a marvellous piece it is too. He easily surpassed Lewenthal in the fluency of the left hand octaves of the last movement's 'ride in hell'.

The obvious comparisons in the Concerto (Studies 8 thru 10) are Ronald Smith (not Roland Smith, as Harold Schonberg calls him!) and Marc-André Hamelin. I would say that of the three, Hamelin has given the best live performance I have heard, with unmatched precision, almost piercingly so in the martellato repeated note sections of the first movement. Gibbons added an extraneous half a bar in the second movement, but this was the only obvious lapse in what must be the largest NUMBER OF NOTES ever played in a single recital (of the modern era). Having said that, the concerto was thrilling and exhilarating, and quite different in many ways from either Smith or Hamelin.

Gibbons made a very good job of the rarely played 11th Study (Overture), which looks quite uninviting on the page. When one gets the opening repeated chords out of the way, it is actually quite a lyrical piece, and Gibbons emphasised its romantic overtones.

After a couple of 'extras' in the form of 'Mad Woman...' and 'En Songe' (just in case we hadn't heard enough Alkan), Gibbons finished up the published programme with Festin d'Esope. He had the audience laughing out loud when illustrating snippets of the various animals he heard in the music (ducks, mice, elephants, fleas etc), before launching into it in full. Gibbons first played this piece as a 16 year old in Oxford in the 70s, and it is obvious that he has it in his bones now. He played it quite differently from the CD, and was in a very mischievous mood. More than anything Gibbons communicates the sense of 'fun' in music, where others would adopt a more reverential approach. This is not to say his range of expression is limited. As one of his three (sic) encores, he paid tribute to Dr John White, founder of the UK Alkan Society, who died on 21st January aged 90, with a very moving performance of 'The time which is no more'. As if he had not used up enough energy already, his other two encores were absolutely wild performances of Allegro Barbaro and Carnival (whose black note to white note 'slides', Gibbons reminded us, were a favourite device of George Gershwin's).

Very different, then, from a Lifschitz or a Kissin recital, but very much the measure of this wilder side of Alkan. It would be nice to hear Gibbons in more of Alkan's many quiet and simple miniatures, some of which are included on his CD. This was a recital I would not want to have missed.