Norman Lebrecht

How a City lawyer conquered the hardest piano work ever written

Norman Lebrecht is gobsmacked by Paul Wee’s recording of Alkan’s preposterous Symphony for Solo Piano

Charles-Valentin Alkan played the piano faster than Liszt and louder than Chopin. The dying Pole left instructions that only Alkan was to be trusted with completing his unfinished Études. Alkan cited Liszt and George Sand as his referees in a bid to be made head of piano at the Paris Conservatoire, but was rejected in what he perceived as an anti-Semitic snub.

After one last concert in 1849, Alkan locked himself in his apartment for 20-odd years, emerging finally at the dead of night in the Salle Érard to play for a word-of-mouth audience of professional pianists. He was found dead 15 years later on 29 March 1888, supposedly crushed by a falling bookcase from which he was extracting a top-shelf tome from the Talmud.

I’m afraid I had to explode this last legend in my new book, Genius and Anxiety, after finding a police report showing he actually died in the kitchen while preparing his evening meal, but I’m sure the myth will survive since so little else is known about the composer. The trouble with Alkan is that he wrote music of such complexity that hardly anyone else could play it. In the 1890s, Ferruccio Busoni was booed in Berlin for interpolating Alkan’s mind-blowing cadenza into Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. And, after that, few others were prepared to risk Alkan on an unprepared public.

Until, in 1970s London, a near-blind English pianist with massive hands began giving lecture-recitals on the South Bank, arguing that Alkan, more than Liszt, was the father of the modern piano. Ronald Smith was the pianist’s name, and he looked like a Home Counties bank manager but, playing from memory, Smith teased out lines of Alkan like it was white powder, sniffing out surreal anticipations of Mahler, Schoenberg and even Boulez in this hermit-crab composer.

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