20 February 2010

Marc-André Hamelin: Alkan Unlocked

W    hat is left is a very simple, straight-forward and honest voice, a voice that is at the heart of the music and that listeners seem able to respond to instantly. When it comes down to it, what makes Alkan’s music so attractive to listeners is not the virtuosity of the piano writing, though that can be exciting, nor the cleverness of the construction, though that might be impressive. No, what grips listeners is the sheer passion of Alkan’s music and the strength of his musical personality.”
  —  Jack Gibbons, 2002.
I    ’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous: nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do; no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see any point or goal.”
  —  Charles-Valentin Alkan, letter to Ferdinand Hiller, 1861.
 Marc-André Hamelin, (c) Fran Kaufman

T he performance by Marc-André Hamelin in Kansas City last night as part of the Harriman-Jewell Series was animated and inspiring throughout. I particularly admired the Alkan ‘12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs Op. 39, Nos. 4-7’.

I n making sense of this challenging piece, I find it helpful to read Stephanie McCallum, Senior Lecturer in Keyboard at Sydney Conservatorium, University of Sydney, who gave a paper at the 2007 Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference, entitled ‘Alkan: Enigma or Schizophrenia?’

A lkan withdrew from public life at age 24, and, according to McCallum, Alkan’s subsequent correspondence (200+ letters) provides clear indications of the onset of severe mental illness. McCallum considers evidence for schizophrenia, for Asperger Syndrome, and for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—with considerable support for the latter... compulsive washing, ritualized avoidance of touching surfaces, refusal to go out of his house, fear of contaminated food, etc.

D espite his private agonies, Alkan in his reclusive years was highly creative. He produced some of the most fantastical, large-scale and virtuosic music of all piano literature. He often displays a preference for long passages of rhythmic and textural patterns, including sequences which set up clashing dissonances. Although these things are frequent in music generally, Alkan takes them to extremes and often to unnerving [melo-]dramatic effect.

E xamples include extended passages of tremolando-like rapidly repeated notes in the left hand and wave-like rolling patterns where the pianist’s hands are like animals roaming the keyboard and the fingers are like animals’ legs—given to primal reflexive impulsions and unspeakable predatory aims.

H amelin captures the erratic, reiterative, relentless, bombastic qualities of these Etudes perfectly—reanimating the unusual personality who composed them. As an encore, Hamelin performed a jewel-like Nocturne of his own composition—a piece that itself embodies ambiguities and moment-to-moment alteration of mood, dissonances, and impromptu trajectory, not unlike the Alkan etudes.

    [50-sec clip, Marc-André Hamelin, C-V Alkan, 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39, No. 9, Adagio, 1.6MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Marc-André Hamelin, C-V Alkan, 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39, No. 10, Allegretto, 1.6MB MP3]

T hese are miniature worlds full of drama, excitement, color and terror!

C uriously, Alkan’s death involved a bookcase in his home, toppling over and crushing him as he was reaching for a book on a high shelf. Bad things happen, as it turns out, even to people who are delusional or paranoid.

 Alkan in top hat, standing, superstitiously refusing to look at photographer

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