J.S. Bach
Johann Sebastian BACH


Frederic Chopin
Frederic CHOPIN


Charles-Valentin Alkan
Charles-Valentin ALKAN


George Gershwin


Jack Gibbons at the piano


Charles-Valentin Alkan photographed around 1850, the only known photographic portrait of the composer
The life and works of Charles-Valentin Alkan seem surrounded in mystery and legend. Born in Paris in 1813, Alkan was a quite extraordinary child prodigy who later became a close friend and neighbour of Chopin with whom he shared concerts in Paris in the 1830s and 40s. Although blessed with a phenomenal piano technique (Liszt once declared that Alkan had the finest technique he had ever known), Alkan preferred the quieter life of a composer and teacher, rarely venturing from his native Paris. His career suffered greatly for his being Jewish at a time when French society had strongly anti-Semitic elements in it, and this, coupled with a highly sensitive nature that made him very vulnerable to any form of criticism led him to lead a semi-reclusive existence for much of his life. When he died in 1888 he left behind a remarkable legacy of compositions, mostly for piano, many of which were never performed in his lifetime.

Through the printed page Alkan continued to influence future generations of composers — particularly Debussy and Ravel, both of whom made a special study of Alkan’s music — but it is only recently that his own forgotten masterpieces such as the Concerto for Solo Piano and Symphony for Solo Piano have begun to reach a wider public after more than a century of neglect. The first recordings of these works didn't appear until as recently as the 1960s and since then public response to Alkan's music has been extraordinary and immediate. In the words of the American pianist Raymond Lewenthal, a pioneer of Alkan's music during this century: "Alkan seems to have something moving and exciting to say to people of our time. Audiences, sophisticated and unsophisticated respond to him."

Alkan's output is mostly for the piano, and is hugely varied, ranging from virtuoso piano studies written on a colossal scale, to exquisite and delightful miniatures depicting virtually every mood imaginable. Most of Alkan's works have highly imaginative titles, particularly his miniatures; it was the smaller pieces of Alkan that so intrigued the young Debussy. The subjects of these miniatures is wide-ranging: weather (e.g. Gros Temps), biblical scenes, death, popular events (Carnaval, Opera), pure atmosphere (Sighs, La Vision), or pure whimsy (Les Enharmoniques pokes fun at the ambiguity of musical notation).

The Douze Études dans les Tons Mineurs (Twelve Studies in the Minor Keys) is the 'magnum opus' of Alkan's output for solo piano, containing as it does some of his greatest work. Published in 1857, it was obviously designed to complement a set of 12 studies in the major keys published some 10 years earlier, but as the later set progressed Alkan's fertile imagination seems to have run riot, and the sheer range of music contained within its 275 pages is staggering: Études 4–7 develop into an entire Symphony, Études 8–10 form a vast Concerto, and Étude 11 a spectacular Overture. The orchestral titles of these works are no accident. The style and form of the music take on a monumental quality — rich, thickly set textures and harmonies, often spiced with influences from Jewish music, and frequently encompassing the entire keyboard – conjure up the sound world of a whole orchestra and tax the performer, both physically and mentally, to the limit.

Programme notes by Jack Gibbons © 1999

Read more about the extraordinary life of Alkan here. 

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