This has been a big year for musical birthdays, with Wagner and Verdi celebrating their 200th and Benjamin Britten clocking up his 100th, but as these noisy gentlemen hog the limelight it is all too easy to ignore some other anniversaries of less well known, but no less interesting, musical personalities. One such figure is perhaps the most interesting of the lot, French composer and Titan of the piano, Charles Valentin Alkan.
Born on 30th November, 1813, Alkan remains one of the most unique musicians to come out of the 19th century, and is one of that crop of French composers who appear to disobey the laws of time by seeming in some way removed from their own; his compatriot Hector Berlioz also springs to mind. Notoriously reclusive for large swathes of time, he nonetheless mixed with the very greatest artistic personalities of the day from Chopin to Hugo to Berlioz to Liszt, Delacroix, Saint-Saens, Meyerbeer, D’Indy, etc., etc. His surviving works for solo piano (many are lost or destroyed) include a symphony and concerto (he didn’t need an orchestra!) as well as a range of smaller but no less assured pieces, such as his Esquisses.
Technically and intellectually demanding, it’s good that more and more pianists are taking up his challenge and recognising that the impact of a great performance of one of his major works can be utterly exhilirating.
To see someone like Marc Andre Hamelin perform his Symphony is quite indescribable!
The only known photograph of Alkan, apart from the characteristically eccentric rear view above: