Does a period piano impede my favourite composer?

Does a period piano impede my favourite composer?


norman lebrecht

November 17, 2014

Don’t get me started on Alkan. He’s been an obsession of mine for half a lifetime, and for more than musical reasons. We share a common ancestry among Alsatian Jews and a plethora of cultural affinities.

Charles-Valentin Alkan was a 20th century composer who had the misfortune to live in the 19th, one who anticipated musical ideas that we now ascribe to Mahler and, in some cases, to Zemlinsky and Schoenberg.

Long story.

Suffice it to say that when I was sent a recording of Alkan’s music on an undernourished instrument of his time, my instant reaction was rejection.

Guess what? It’s Album of the Week on Read here.



  • Geoff Radnor: says:

    Canadian pianist Marc Andre Hamelin must be the most prolific performer of the piano works of Alkan, many of his recordings are available.

  • Boring Fileclerk says:

    I concur with Geoff. Hamelin is the most prolific evangelist of Alkan we have ,and the best possible pianist to promote him (although I would LOVE to hear what Kissin would do with Alkan….)

  • 2K says:

    Check out the Alkan recordings of Stephanie McCallum from Australia.

  • lextune says:

    Jack Gibbons has made a few Alkan recordings that are unparalleled.

  • Vince says:

    I think one of the saddest realizations that I have as a classical music enthusiast is that I won’t be able to hear all that many Alkan works performed by pianists in a concert hall. Alkan piano works are notoriously difficult, and it’s highly doubtful professionals would stick their necks out to play his works in concert. If a listener can get passed the excess pianism, the music is a huge pleasure to listen to!

    I think only a handful of professionals dare to play Alkan in recitals, most notably Marc Andre Hamelin. However, there are amateurs who attemp to perform Alkan works on YouTube and many of them are first rate. Here are a few of my favorites.
    “Scherzo Focoso”
    “Le Preux”
    “Le Chemin de fer”

    • steve says:

      Is it really so rare to hear Alkan live, and performed by a professional pianist? Last year I heard Jonathan Powell and Mark Viner play various works and I have fond recollections of Ronald Smith recitals in Bexhill and London. Starrier names do seem to give his music a wide berth which is a shame.
      There’s the technical hurdles to overcome, incredible stamina required, but (perhaps) also a rather rigid feeling to the phrase structure and melodically stiff.

      • Vince says:

        Steve, I reside in the States where piano recitals are not as common compared to European countries. Over the past decade, I’ve only been to two recitals that had Alkan works in them. Both were Hamelin recitals, one of which I had to take a flight to attend. Thankfully, he played the two major works the Concerto and the Symphonie. These are two performances that I will cherish in my memory forever!

  • Will Duffay says:

    Leslie Howard played some at the Wigmore Hall once. Great concert. I’ve had the pleasure to have heard Ronald Smith twice, and Hamelin. Watching extraordinary pianists wrestle with the music’s titanic challenges is very exhilarating. (It’s worth noting that the legend of Alkan’s demise under a falling bookshelf as he reached for his Talmud is apparently untrue…)

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interesting composer, but one whose inventiveness seems to exclusively focussed on virtuosity and technique, and much less so on musical content.

    • Boring Fileclerk says:

      I believe that Hamelin put an end to that myth. There are plenty of musical riches in Alkan for those who practice enough to overcome the technical obstacles.