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Friday, December 6, 2013

Alkan, Oeuvres Pour Piano, Pascal Amoyel

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) shot like a meteor through Europe as a brilliant virtuoso on the piano in his younger years, then abruptly disappeared from the public eye. His was a tortured soul and he no longer wished to concertize. He continued to compose, however, leaving behind him at his death a body of works for the piano that are alternatingly heart rendingly lyrical and explosively virtuosic.

His fate was to leave this earth unrecognized. But as time passes, sometimes genius overcomes obscurity. In the late '60s-early '70s his music began to be heard through the championship of Raymond Lewenthal and others. Recordings appeared. I for one discovered his music in this way sometime in the mid-'70s and have revelled in it ever since.

He was like Franz Liszt a Promethean composer of enormous pianistic difficulty from the technical side. He left no school of followers versed by the master in the intricacies of performance. He had to be learned anew. The fact that his music is at times romantic yet entirely idiosyncratic meant that mastering his music was an enormous task. And like the Bartok String Quartets (as I mentioned last month) it may be that it has taken a number of years for the Alkan piano oeuvre to become "normalized", readily understood if only by a few select pianists.

If that is so Pascal Amoyel is surely one. His CD of Alkan's Oeuvres Pour Piano (la dolce volta 11) gives us a wonderful collection of some of the Master's works played with the passion and sensitivity of one who really understands the "inner" Alkan, to my mind. Five major works appear on the disk, including the monumental "Grande Sonate, op. 33 'Les 4 ages'".

The music is entirely brilliant, some of the very best Alkan you can hear. Maestro Amoyel has chosen wisely and carefully so that the most tender of the lyrical side of Charles-Valentin is on display as well as the tempestuous virtuoso side. Pascal Amoyel handles both sides with an extraordinary musicality and sensitivity to nuance that I must say it is almost like hearing Alkan for the first time. Every part has its place in the whole; the whole comes through with glowing clarity and totally appropriate expressivity. If there is a somewhat eccentric side to Alkan, Amoyel makes it speak with total lucidity, gives it an inevitability, an affectionate familiarity, makes it understandable for anyone who listens attentively. And so far as the more recognizably Jewish strains of Alkan's music, no one understands how that fits in better than Maestro Amoyel. Several listens made that all clear to me. Several more confirmed it.

This is a milestone in the Alkan discography. I know of no better performances of these works. For those who do not know Alkan, here indeed is where to start. For those that do, here is where it all comes together. I hope this recording will do much to convince listeners of Alkan's genius. He was extraordinary and Pascal Amoyel makes the most convincing case I've heard why that is so.


  1. Hi John! I think you'll feel the same way. Pascal A. plays Alkan the way Alkan might have played Alkan! That isn't easy. I knew something was very good when, after a few listens, I started hearing what some other well meaning players didn't quite get right, as wonderful as some other performances are, and the sense of the music came through that much more strongly. He should do more!! Alkan no longer sounds "difficult" from the listener's perspective, not to me anyway.