Nineteenth-century French composer Charles Henri Valentin Alkan certainly did not become a household name like his friends and contemporaries, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin.
A child prodigy who grew up to be a celebrated concert pianist, he wrote very long and ferociously difficult pieces, but he spent much of his adult life as a self-imposed recluse (one legend says an Alkan obituary read, “Alkan is dead. He had to die in order to prove his existence”), and as a result, some of his works drifted into obscurity.
In this, his bicentennial year, several pianists, including Italian Alessandro Deljavan, have helped bring Alkan’s music to the fore with new recordings of his compositions.
Deljavan, familiar to North Texas piano fans as a semifinalist and jury award winner in the 2009 and 2013 Cliburn Competitions, has released a masterful album of three of the composer’s most engaging works on the label Piano Classics, available in the U.S. on July 30.
Get a comfortable chair when you start the recording, because you are not going to want to turn it off until it is over — and maybe not until after a second listen.
All three works are very different, but all are delightfully and fascinatingly complex.
Although all three etudes reside at the limits of technical abilities of most pianists, in the appropriately named 3 Grandes Études for Piano, Op. 76 (1838), Alkan tosses in a one-hand-tied-behind-your-back complication. No. 1, Fantasie in A-flat major, is played only with the left hand; No. 2, Introduction, Variations et Finale in D major, is for the right hand; and No. 3, Mouvement semblable et perpetuel (Rondo-Toccata) in C minor keeps both hands, now reunited, very busy.
The deceptively named Sonatine for Piano, Op. 61 (1861), is really a large-scale multi-movement sonata.
And the modest Deux petites pièces, Op. 60 (1859), offers another world from the formal sonata. The first is Ma chère liberté (“My dear [cherished] freedom”) in F-sharp major, the second Ma chère servitude (“My dear servitude [slavery]”) in A minor. Both are highlights of the CD.
Deljavan, 26, turns in confident performances of each and every movement and piece, conquering the impossibly virtuosic showpieces and playing them like romantic masterworks — full of expression and beautiful, long-spinning melodies.
For the pianist, perfection of technique is just a ticket into the heart of the music. Once there, the composer’s voice appears, clear and unfettered.
Fans and followers of Deljavan’s playing will recognize characteristics that distinguish and elevate his playing.
First, with effortless elegance, he floats a melody weightlessly over his own accompaniment. He does it most deftly on this recording in the lyrical Ma chère liberté.
Second, he doesn’t try to make the simple sound difficult. He seemingly revels in the minimal opening of the allegramente movement of the Sonatine. He plays this modest two-part passage with simplicity, but with a keen understanding of where it is headed.
Finally, in an era of piano bangers, he does not overplay. Even when Alkan writes a rarely seen quadruple forte in the first movement of the Fantasie, Deljavan seems to realize that the composer didn’t want the passage to sound ugly and keeps it within the boundaries of the instrument.
He scrupulously observes dynamics. Most importantly, nothing on the album is ever for show. He keeps the flashiest passages within the constraints of the music, never letting them run wild.
Deljavan does, however, at times linger over phrases until the “too much ritard” line is just crossed. He also adds rubato moments where they are not marked, namely at the ends of phrases and ends of internal sections. Although many times it’s easy to agree with his musical effect, these pauses seem to become a mannerism. Repeated phrases occasionally lack their own identity.
Let none of these quibbles prevent you from discovering the music of an unjustly ignored pianist and composer in the hands of a pianist on his way to the top of the profession.
Deljavan, as well as two other Cliburn prizewinners, will perform as part of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s three-day Great Performances Festival.