Laurent Martin

Charles-Valentin Alkan: A Portrait

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Charles-Valentin Alkan, born in 1813 and deceased in 1888 allegedly after a bookcase fell on him as he reached for a copy of the Talmud (although annotator François Luguenot questions the tale), was ahead of his time in the 19th century and apparently still poses challenges for players and listeners, to judge from the sparsity of recordings of his works. When Alkan is recorded at all, it is usually massive works like the Concerto for solo piano and the Grande Sonate "Les quatres ages," Op. 33, selected by Alkan champions such as Marc-André Hamelin. There is no doubt that one thing Alkan did was push the piano and its players to their ultimate limits, but this is not all that he was about. French pianist Laurent Martin has issued a fine series of Alkan recordings that captures the startling quality of his music but largely focuses on aspects other than sheer virtuosity, and all are highly recommended to anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by this brilliant but eccentric composer. Shorter pieces such as the 22 heard on this release offer fine examples of Alkan's sheer experimentalism. He was among the first composers to try to musically evoke the sound of a train, in Le chemin de fer, Op. 27 (1844), a straightforward forerunner to Honegger's Pacific 231. "Les Diablotins," from the Esquisses, Op. 63, uses tone clusters, and that entire set offers coloristic unresolved dissonances of very early vintage. The two barcarolles and several of the Preludes, Op. 31, show an entirely different side of Alkan, melancholy and spiritual. Probably the most difficult work on the album (although Le chemin de fer is tops in terms of sheer speed) is the Etude pour la main gauche, Op. 76, a truly monumental work for the left hand alone. Downsides are external to Martin's music-making; the disc is expensive, not terribly well recorded (the miking is too close up), and poorly presented graphically. But this is a worthy addition to the thankfully growing body of Alkan recordings.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Esquisses, Op. 63
1 1:26
2 1:57
3 1:00
4 1:09
5 2:38
6 1:12
7 4:46
8 3:54
Les Mois, Op. 74
9 1:29
10 3:54
Préludes, Op. 31
11 1:31
12 4:12
13 3:59
14 2:44
15 1:29
16 3:05
17 1:36
18 2:16
19 2:10
20 5:27
Etude pour la main gauche, Op. 76
21 8:30
22 3:17
blue highlight denotes track pick