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Alkan's Organ Music

Keith Bowyer (organ)

Benedictus, Op. 54
12 Études d'Orgue ou de Piano à Pedales pour les Pieds seulement, Nos. 1–6

11 Grands Préludes et 1 Transcription du Messie de Hændel, Op. 66


Toccata Classics TOCC0030


The most famous composers, with their best-known works, are often less suitable as a mirror of their periods and contexts than are ‘lesser lights.' Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–88), known for the technical difficulty of his piano works, but as remarkable for his spiritual and academic interests, is an ideal exemplar of the cultural variety of France in the Second Empire and third Republic – educationally Reithian, yet with a strong irrationalist, even occultist vein.


Exploration of Alkan, whose piano oeuvre was resurrected by the estimable Ronald Smith, has now reached his organ output, some of which may have been intended for pedal piano (Cesar Franck was Alkan's best-known organist friend).

Nineteenth century France was driven by two traditions from its recent past; the high-mindedness of the Enlightenment and the dangerously uncontrolled Revolution. On this CD, consistently therefore, we find half a set of etudes written purely for the organ pedals, praised as crucial to the development of the pedal part in organ music after 1850 (Widor, Vierne), a set of ‘full' preludes that range from post-Bach chorale preludes to soft-focus romanticism, dedicated to Franck, and a few heart-on-sleeve religious pieces, the Benedictus, an etude that reflects Alkan's Jewish background, and the Handel transcription (Behold and See from the Messiah) that concludes the etudes.


Keith Bowyer's playing is atmospherically expressive. Despite the need to present an emotionalist, overtly Romantic repertoire, Bowyer keeps a tight sense of structure and technical control. He deals splendidly with the scene painting of the Jewish Prelude 7, and the extravagant virtuosity of Prelude 10.


The recording is presumably faithful to the big boomy sound of the Walker/ Wood organ; it is not inappropriate for such overtly mid-romantic repertoire. This remains representative more than truly inspired composition and playing, but as a musicological project, it is fascinating.


Ying Chang

Organ Works Vol 2

Pro Organo

12 Etudes pour les pieds seulement: Nos. 7-12
11 pieces dans le Style Religieux Op. 72 - Nos. 1 - 11

Handel Messiah ('Pastoral Symphony') transcr. Alkan


Keith Bowyer (organ)

Toccata Classics TOCC0031


This is a dazzling achievement and the most enjoyable organ disc that has come my way this year. I take a more positive and enthusiastic view of Bowyer's Vol 2 than does YC to Vol 1, and have been delighted to extend my enjoyment of Alkan's piano music to this collection of organ works.

It is hard to believe that some of the pedal studies are truly played with just a pair of feet ! The registrations are felicitous, the sound magnificent, both sumptuous and very clear, a tricky combination.


Congratulations to Bowyer and to Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics.


Peter Grahame Woolf