Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)

Music for Organ or Pedal-Piano
Treize Prières, op.64 (c.1870) [52:06]
Petits Préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant (1859) [7:21]
Impromptu sur le Choral de Luther, Un fort rempart est notre Dieu, op.69 (c.1871) [14:01]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. Salisbury Cathedral, 4-5 October 1988. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5089 [73:48]
This superb CD was originally released in 1988, and is still widely available on the internet. As for numerous other composers featured in his huge Nimbus discography, Kevin Bowyer blazed a trail for the absurdly neglected French composer Valentin Alkan, yet few have followed his lead. Bowyer himself subsequently recorded two CDs, with a third pending, for Toccata Classics, taking care not to duplicate this Nimbus recital - see reviews of volume 1 and volume 2. According to the Alkan Society, Bowyer is still alone in having recorded the 13 Prières, op.64, though one or two others, most notably John Wells on the Ribbonwood label, have done the odd one or two, sometimes in arrangements by Alkan's friend, César Franck. Bowyer's is still the sole version of the Impromptu op.69, although earlier this year Toccata Classics released Alkan's complete music for piano four hands, featuring the phenomenal arrangement by Roger Smalley (review). The somewhat easier Petits Préludes have been recorded by others, by King on Symposium (1062, 1992) and Andrew Canning on Landscape Music (LMICD 001, 1999); the first recording was made by Georges Lartigau on the German label Motette in 1984, not available on CD.
The Prières (Prayers) are a revelation. Thirteen pieces of outstanding, even outlandish variety and interest, inspired and glorious, devotional yet frequently playful, sometimes, like the seventh, so weird as to be practically extraterrestrial. The third is a proto-minimalist piece that knocks today's post-modern pretenders into a cocked hat, the eighth a stirring battle hymn, the final one an unforgettable expression of exultation.
By contrast, the eight manuals-only Petits Préludes are as diminutive as their title indicates, averaging under a minute each. Alkan's only work written expressly for the organ, the Preludes are gentle and unassuming, a timeless stroll through eight Gregorian modes, and the calm before the storm of the mighty, almost unholy, Impromptu. This title is Alkan's joke - from a quiet opening, this work builds quickly to an imposing, complex, altogether astounding piece, a masterclass in variation form. There are four sections played as a single movement, each keeping the same metronome mark. The final, massive fugue - almost half the playing time - is mind-blowing in its energy and intensity as it whirls like a chromatic dervish, shaking the nave to its foundations before Alkan shakes an almost impromptu ending out of his sleeve. Bowyer miraculously keeps on top of it all, sprouting auxiliary hands and feet as required: already at this very early stage in his career he was staking out his claim as one of the finest organists of modern times.
This was in fact one of Bowyer's earliest recordings for Nimbus, a contract which was to bequeath posterity around 50 almost invariably memorable CDs. The discography available on his website is three years out of date, but already 14 pages long! Bowyer's incredible Sorabji Organ Project is still rolling forward, but its completion promises to be one of the greatest organ events in the history of music.
Salisbury Cathedral organ was built by the illustrious Henry Willis & Sons, and both are going strong. The organ dates from 1877 and was renovated by the same company in 1969. Though clearly lacking the long illustrious history of the Cathedral itself, the instrument has a fine reputation - the Cathedral proudly describes it as "one of the finest pipe organs in the world". New technology would do it greater justice nowadays - the recording is a little on the quiet side, and there is minor background hiss in evidence between tracks - but this is such a good buy overall it would be churlish to complain. Ronald Smith's booklet notes are intelligent and well written.
Though the back cover of the CD shows Bowyer sporting a haircut he may wish to forget, these masterly performances are sure to live on, helping keep alive the possibility that future generations will recognise Alkan's haecceity and genius more readily than those who have gone before.
Collected reviews and contact at
These masterly performances are sure to live on.