Thursday, September 1, 2011

Marc-André Hamelin: Alkan's Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges'

This is from the second movement of Charles-Valentin Alkan's Grande Sonate "Les quatre âges," opus 33. This movement is technically demanding, as are many of Alkan's compositions. Playing it superbly is Marc-André Hamelin, a native of my hometown Montreal, in an extract from the documentary "Super Virtuoso."


Marc-Andre Hamelin has said that he enjoys playing less known composers like Alkan, which must be a great joy of discovery to the audiences who hear Alkan for the first time. I was among those ignorant of his music, which only changed when Prof George Jochnowitz sent me a link earlier in the week. To the say the least, I am thankful for it. It shows that even at my age, there is a thrill in discovery.

La Grande sonate: Les quatre âges, gives emotion to The Four Ages of Man, a four-movement sonata for piano. Each movement corresponds to an age as man matures: 20, 30, 40, and 50. Alkan dedicated the work to his father, Alkan Morhange, and published it in 1847, when he was at the height of his success as a musician. It is noteworthy to mention that Alkan wrote almost solely for the keyboard, similar to Frédéric Chopin.

Alkan was born Charles-Valentin Morhange to Alkan Morhange and Julie Morhange (née Abraham) in Paris, France, on November 30, 1813. He was born into a Jewish family and his father ran a private music school. He was the second of six children, and all took on their father's first name as their surname when quite young. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at age six, and reached the pinnacle of his career at age 25, despite having hardly performed outside Paris. His friends included of Franz Liszt, George Sand, Victor Hugo and Anton Rubinstein. In the 1840s, Chopin was a neighbour.

A major disappointment occurred in 1848, when Alkan was passed over for the position of head of the piano department in the Conservatoire upon the retirement of Joseph Zimmermann. He stopped giving public performances after 1853, and lived much like a recluse for the next quarter of a century. In the last 10 years of his life, he gave a few public performances. Alkan, however, had other interests besides music. He had completed a translation of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament into French.He also studied the Talmud.

Alkan never married, although it is generally accepted that Élie-Miriam Delaborde, a French pianist and composer, is his son. Charles-Valentin Alkan died in Paris on March 29, 1888, found by a concierge under a coat rack. He was 74. I plan to write more about this French composer and pianist, after I find out more and listen to more of his works. So far, I think Alkan deserves wider recognition.

Charles-Valentin Alkan [1813-1888]: The composer Vincent d’Ìndy said after hearing Alkan play the Beethoven Piano Sonata (op 110): “What happened to the great Beethovenian poem—above all, the Arioso and the Fugue, where the melody, penetrating the mystery of Death itself, climbs up to a blaze of light—I couldn't begin to describe. [The performance] affected me with enthusiasm such as I have never experienced since. This was not Liszt—less perfect technically—but it had greater intimacy and was more humanly moving.”
Source: Wikipedia