Charles-Valentin Alkan Composer
Le Preux, concert etude in Bb, Op.17
Musicology:Highly indicative, if inconclusive, evidence suggests that a liaison with one of Alkan's pupils, a married woman of high social position, and the birth of a child, Elie Miriam Delaborde, who later became a formidable pianist and exponent of Alkan's works, caused the composer to withdraw from the Parisian concert scene in 1838. He had already had an auspicious start, through which he often appeared with his friends Liszt and Chopin. His reputation was so sufficiently established that, when he briefly emerged from his retirement to present a concert at the Salle Erard on April 29, 1844, the press treated it as a major event. "Everyone knows of Alkan's superiority as a composer," La France musicale declared, "now they will have an opportunity to judge for themselves his superiority as a performer." The emphasis is curious; by 1844, Alkan had published a handful of miniatures (including Les Mois, from the end of his career), two slight but piquant Concerti da camera, the scintillant Rondeau chromatique, some fashionable operatic fantasies, and the Études (12) ou Caprices, three of which (including the once popular "Le Vent") had been denounced by Schumann as "false, unnatural art...." In any case, his recital featured works by Bach, Beethoven, Scarlatti, Mozart, and Weber and was a triumph. Among the sheaf of his own new works given on that occasion, the Saltarelle provoked a sensation and was soon taken up by other pianists. By October, more new works were in hand—the four-hand Don Juan Fantasy, two ambitious marches, the satiric Le chemin de fer, and Le preux ("the doughty warrior," "the valiant knight"). The latter is substantial, playing around seven minutes and explosive with piston-like octaves and coruscating tremolandi suggesting high deeds and derring-do or, perhaps, Don Quixote. Alkan, a keen satirist, no doubt composed this portrait tongue-in-cheek, but an incisive touch, metronomic rigidity, and a preternatural brilliance are nevertheless sine qua non if Le preux is not to devolve into a mere ramshackle caricature. Inhuman technical demands aside, it is Alkan's ability to teasingly have it both ways—sly humor edging the exhilaration of noble feats—that has baffled performers and disconcerted listeners on the rare occasions when Le preux has been given a hearing. Other composers, for instance Hugo Wolf of Abschied (which rounds off his collection of Mörike Lieder), may deliciously labor the point of their satire, whereas Alkan is both incisive and mercurial. Too often, too, the listener wishes to wholeheartedly identify with grand Romantic sentiments (as he always can with Schumann, Liszt, and Chopin), whereas Alkan offers ambiguity in an ironic, proto-Modern awareness of human complexity that places Alkan with Mozart among the keenest of musical psychologists. Thus, a work of such winning exuberance as Le preux may still appeal only to a small but discriminating audience, even if superbly performed, which it seldom is.
Le Preux, concert etude in Bb, Op.17Key: Bb
Pr. Instrument: Piano
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