Friday, August 6, 2010

The Berlioz of the Piano

What a descriptive phrase! Hector Berlioz with his imagination, love of the macabre and a penchant for monster, certainly nails down an impression, but of whom? Liszt, sure, maybe Anton Rubinstein, but this was said of Charles Valentin Alkan. This little known French composer/ pianist is hard to come to grips with; he avoided people, publicity and concerts. He was a friend of Chopin, who lived in the same apartment building and after his death in 1849; it was Alkan who inherited Chopin's pupils and unfinished notes on a teaching manual by the Polish composer.

What characterizes Alkan's music is it's incongruity between an arch conservative who was also one of the wildest romantics. Imagine a cross between a teenaged Mozart and Edgar Allen Poe and you are getting into the strange space that Alkan occupies in music.

This isn't music for the faint hearted performer. I've noticed that some composer's piano music often looks unique, like the fingerprints of the artist are visible on the printed page. Chopin's music does not look like Beethoven and Schumann isn't like Bach, no matter how hard he tried. Alkan's music looks blocky like Liszt's, but it is thick, really thick. The music looks so straight forward that you think you might be able to sight read some of it and then the thickness and complexity of the chords start to intimidate you and all it takes to finish your enthusiasm, is a glance at the time signature and this is where most pianists throw up their hands. Playing music this thick, rhymically tricky and fast isn't for the average pianist.

The people who take the trouble to learn Alkan are a special bunch. These are not pieces for a typical recital. The Symphonie for Piano solo is an offering for those connoisseurs that spend their time reading about and listening to composers that only show up as footnotes in main stream music books. You need a sterling technique, lots of stamina and what the Italians call bravura, the ability to whip up the piano into a froth of notes. That will get you entrance into the interesting and unusual world of Alkan.

Tune in for an introduction to this conservative/ wild man in the age of Romanticism on the Piano this Sunday at 5 on KPAC & KTXI.

host, Randy Anderson

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