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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Organ Works: Volume 2

Pro Organo (1850) [2:20]
12 Études pour les pieds seulement, Nos. 7/12 (c. 1869) [21:20]
11 pieces dans le Style Religieux et 1 Transcription du Messie de Handel Op. 72 (c. 18670 [50:00]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. Blackburn Cathedral, May 2005. DDD

At the start of the chapter entitled ‘Organ or Pedal Piano?’ in his indispensable book on the music of Alkan first published in 1987, Ronald Smith declared that until Alkan’s organ music ‘receives a full and independent study, preferably by an organist who is also a concert-pianist, its significance can hardly be realised’. He also made the ambitious claim that ‘it contains some of the profoundest and most varied works for its medium since Bach’, a statement which tantalised me when I first read it.

Although it is true that the discography of Alkan’s organ music has not kept pace with the growing number of piano CDs, there have been some invaluable recordings in the past few decades. John Wells’s notable recording made in 1988, the first New Zealand organ CD, has given me great pleasure over the years.

With his new series of recordings Kevin Bowyer and Toccata Classics have done Alkan a huge service. Bowyer is the ideal advocate for this music: not only is he a consummate and highly intelligent musician, but his technique seems to know no bounds. The 12 Études pour les pieds seulement represent some of the most forbidding technical challenges in the organ repertoire. A performer who has not only mastered the spine-chilling and diabolical difficulties of these works but is also able to unlock their musical qualities from the page is a rare artist indeed.

Volume 2 starts with the short Pro Organo dating from 1850, so one of Alkan’s earliest organ compositions. Its tantalisingly brief journey from the minor opening to the final abrupt C major cadence immediately draws the listener into this composer’s unique musical universe. It also serves to introduce another star of this project, the Blackburn Cathedral organ. Since its renovation in 2001/02 it sounds even more impressive than I remember, helped by the excellent cathedral acoustic.

Included on this disc are the final six of the 12 Études pour les pieds seulement, the first six appearing on the first volume. Like much of Alkan’s oeuvre, which to uninitiated can sound severe and slightly forbidding, this is music which yields its secrets on repeated hearings. As Malcolm MacDonald tells us in his perceptive notes, ‘though they can be regarded as technical studies…they are in their own way as serious and epoch-making music as his two sets of 12 Études for piano.’ Characteristically, Alkan demands from the feet the same amount of dexterity as the ten fingers.

Each study has a strongly defined character and as a set projects a vast range of emotion, from extreme delicacy to violent turbulence. As MacDonald states, some of these fascinating works are really miniature tone-poems. The ninth Étude was considered by Ronald Smith as the ne plus ultra of Alkan’s fiendish demands upon the organist’s feet, and Bowyer clearly relishes it challenges. It further highlights the almost superhuman technical qualities needed by the performer, similar to those presented by his piano Trois Grandes Études Op 76 for the hands separately and reunited. I found the twelfth and final Étude, a chaconne with 40 variations, particularly arresting and a fitting climax to whole set.

The rest of the CD is devoted to the 11 pieces dans le Style Religieux et 1 Transcription, du Messie de Handel, Op. 72, which Smith believed contains some of Alkan’s most impressive music. Composed in the 1860s and designated for ‘piano ou harmonium’, the set works effectively on the organ, particularly when performed with such conviction as it is here. Again, Alkan’s stylistic fingerprints are found all over these medium-sized pieces. It seems invidious to single out individual highlights. The contrast between the almost child-like innocence at the start of the fourth piece and the mock-sinister tune in the bass is delightfully captured, and the eleventh and longest of the pieces, which Smith described as ‘an absolute oddity’, is typically bizarre and compelling as only Alkan can be.

This CD demands to be heard by a wide musical audience and not only by Alkan and organ aficionados. High accolades should also be awarded to Toccata Classics for such an enterprising release, the excellent recording quality achieved by Lance Andrews of Lammas Records and by the producer Richard Tanner.

Robert Costin


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