Notes by Sacheverell Sitwell
JOHN OGDON PLAYS ALKAN
Concerto for Solo Piano
Notes by Sacheverell Sitwell
(liner notes to RCA stereo record #LSC-3192, copyright 1972, RCA Records.)
The piano music of Alkan after a century of neglect in coming into its own at last. Some of his pieces, it is true, were played at recitals in the ‘20s and ‘30s by Busoni and Egon Petri. After that there were 40 years of silence, more or less. But within the last years his music has been played and recorded by Raymond Lewenthal, and now appears this record of Alkan’s Concerto for piano solo, part of his Op. 39, Douze etudes dans les tons mineurs, played by John Ogdon.
Alkan was at once a virtuoso and a recluse, two self-contradictory traits of personality, for what point is there in being a performer of transcendental powers if you never exhibit them and play in public? All the point in the world may well have been Alkan’s reply to this, and perhaps his motto was, “Je prefere m’instruire moi-meme, qu’instruire les autre” (“I prefer instructing myself to instructing others”).
This curious person and quasi-genius was born in Paris in 1913. Alkan was his nom de plume, his real name being Charles Henri Valentin Morhange. He came from an Alsation family of Jewish derivation, so it is stated, but it is of interest that Alkan was a Danish-Jewish name, and that the sporting painter Henry Alkan may have been of like origin. Almost the only other personal information given of him is that he died in Paris in 1888, through falling from a ladder in his library while looking for a lost Rabbinical book, and that he left an illegitimate son Elie Miriam Deleborde, a pianist, also, and an “eccentric” like his father.
As a young man Alkan knew Chopin and was a friend of Liszt and of Anton Rubinstein, both of whom expressed admiration of his music but seem to have been reluctant to perform it. Too little is known about his life to be able to explain why he became more and more of a recluse when about 40 years old, but there may have been personal and psychological reasons for this. As, also, for his emergence again 20 years later when he returned to the concert platform and would play anything but his own compositions, which were, by now, massive in bulk and formidable in execution. His Op. 39, for instance. But it was preceded by Op. 35, Douze etudes dans les ton majeurs, five of which etudes it is to be noted were in the repertoire of Busoni, including, I think, the curious but typically named No. 7, L’Incndie au village voisin (Fire in the next village).
However, his later set of etudes, the Op. 39, now under consideration, is more interesting still. It was published in 1857, not long after Alkan went into virtual obscurity, and its mere layout is frightening indeed. No. 1, Comme le vent is self-descriptive; No. 2 is en rythme molossique—perhaps a hunting piece?; No. 3 is a Scherzo diabolico; Nos. 4,5,6 and 7 form a Symphonie, of which, in passing, No. 6 is a minuet, but not, as Mr. Lewenthal has remarked, an ordinary minuet, and Mr. Lewenthal should know. Etudes 8, 9 and 10 form the concerto now under review; No. 11 is an Ouverture, while the finale, No. 12 is a set of 25 variations called Le Festin d’Esope, the subject being Aesop’s fables, based on a musical theme much akin to my innocent ear to the nursery song, Ba-ba, black sheep, have you any wool?
Alkan’s Concerto for piano solo is a monumental work, to which the notice”Keep Out” is applicable where the unwary amateur is concerned. He would be well advised to listen instead to Mr. Ogdon, and it is indeed a stunning and most wonderful performance. The first movement(Etude No. 8), which plays for 25 minutes or more, can perhaps be explained as Alkan’s attempt to adapt both orchestral and solo effects and aspects of a concerto to the single instrument alone; or, more briefly, to do for the concerton form what Liszt achieved in his adaptation for the piano of both vocal and piano parts in his settings of songs by Schubert or Schumann. Or, in other words, a piano concerto by Alkan arranged by himself for piano solo: hence his alternating expressions of Solo and Tutti in his score. It is one of the peaks of virtuoso playing and of obsessive effect, inducing one to wonder whatever sort of person this hermit-recluse can have been, alarmingly astrologer—or alchemist-like of aspect, to judge from the portraits, with his Chinese-juggling feats of pianism and his illegitimate son. Listen again, remembering that this is the work of a solitary who shunned success or popularity, and there is something both movingly pathetic and at the same time a little weird in the deceptive simplicity, the almost occasional inadequacy of the material that he works up into such a frenzy of intricacy and complexity!
The Quansi-trombe marking in the coda and the drum tappings in the following Adagio (Etude No.9), of funereal preoccupation, are favorite devices with Alkan, whose two “military” pieces, Capriccio alla soldatesca, Op. 50, No. 1, and its companion Le Tambour bat aux champs, Op. 50, No. 2, both of them replete with drumming effects, are becoming almost popular from more frequent hearing. The finale (Etude No. 10) is in the form of a bolero, liberally interpreted, with curious hints and echoes of the Rakoczy March, so dear to Liszt and Berlioz, and here given dazzling and unwearying performance by this great artist and champion of forgotten or lost causes. There is no one to equal John Ogdon in this respect, and perhaps no Englishman has ever played before as he can at his best, when interested.
But the music of Alkan is still so little known that perhaps the reader will submit to a few more words about him. His Op. 27, Le Chemin de fer, and another piece, Le Chapeau plat, are intriguing in title. Can the latter have been a portrait, for Liszt wrote La Marquise de Blocqueville, Portrait en musique, in 1868? Better known are Alkan’s Trois grandes etudes, Op. 76, of which one is for the left and one for the right hand alone. And there are his 48 Esquisses, Op. 63, perhaps wearying in number, and countless other pieces. Perhaps oddest of all his music must be the Treize prieres pour orgue, ou piano a clavier de pedales, Op. 64, of which Jose Vianna da Motta, the Portuguese pupil of Liszt, made a piano transcription of intractable and hideous difficulties. For toward the end of his life Alkan became an enthusiastic performer on the pedalier, a piano with a pedal board like an organ, for which he is even said to have composed four-part fugues for pedals alone, reminding one of Max Beerbohm’s answer to the mystery of Frank Harris’ amatory successes: “A voice like the organ at Westminster Abbey and unprecedented footwork.”
One could be right in thinking that the Prieres would be insupportable to listen to, on whatever instrument. The proper introduction to Alkan’s music comes from the aforementioned La Tambour bat aux champs or from the Capriccio alla soldatesca. Thence the appetite leads easily to his Concerto for piano solo. Perhaps, all said and done, Busoni, in prefacing the great edition of Liszt for the Liszt-Stiftung, was correct in referring to “the greatest of the post-Beethoven composers for the piano, Chopin, Schumann, Alkan, Brahms.” For all that, Alkan is not Liszt, and only loses in the comparison. His music may be as difficult, but it is not so exciting, and it has neither the poetry and sense of beauty not the experience in living of that greatest of virtuosi. It has not the polish of manner of the youthful Liszt nor “the Jesuitical ease and elegance” of his old age. In listening to the etude for left hand alone of Alkan, the old magician and recluse who must have been young once, we may be reminded of the Chinese snuff bottles painted with special brushes and agonizing pains and difficulties on the inside. The results are daunting and astonishing, but not altogether pleasing.
But Alkan can be relied upon to excel in a Scherzo diabolico, or in the Quasi-Faust, which is the second movement in his Grande sonata, Op.33. In these he is on the big scale, as, here, in his concerto. The retorts are all busy and fuming, and the alchemical flames are blazing. The old gentleman is even more than a little sinister and alarming in his musical laboratory, all the more so if seated at the keyboard of his unique and eccentric instrument, the pedal piano. It is difficult not to think of him, thus, immensely old and disappointed. Or perhaps he was assuaged by worldly failure? For that, too, can be. The work under discussion, written when he was about 45 years old and about to retire into himself, could be said to circle on the outer edge or perimeter of popular success. Probably he did not aspire to that; but when played as it is played here, the Concerto succeeds in spite of itself. And after a century of neglect the old hermit-musician cannot grudge himself some return to fame.