Charles-Valentin Alkan: Grande Sonate 'Les quatre ages'
Murray Ashdown, Sam Liu, Aleksander Szram, Karl Lutchmayer, Douglas Finch, Anthony Green, Derek Foster, Peter Grahame Woolf, piano
with additional movements by Murray Ashdown, Anthony Green, Derek Foster and Aleksander Szram
Peacock Room, Trinity College of Music, London 19 January 2010
"Are you an Alkanite?" I was asked before the concert began. No, not yet, but I understand that it is a condition that grips its bearers completely and feverishly... The atmosphere in Trinity College's Peacock Room was distinctly of the nineteenth century, with unraked seating, and chaises longues at the front for the performers.
Charles-Valentin Alkan's Grande Sonate 'Les quatre ages' describes man's four decades, 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s and, in a nod to 21st-century longevity, Szram had commissioned four additional movements to cover the full span from teens to 80s (this last, an 11-bar movement played by our own PGW).
Szram had also organised pianists of appropriate ages to perform each movement. The new movements were performed by their composers: 13-year-old Murray Ashdown did extremely well to begin proceedings, playing his nicely formed, almost Mozartean little sonata-prelude. This drew on one of Alkan's own themes used later in the sonata to signify the arrival of children, and its spirit returned in the epigrammatic final movement too.
Those movements for the 60s and 70s, by Anthony Green and Derek Foster respectively, were meatier. Green's in particular was flamboyantly dissonant: handfuls of notes and flurries as though Alkan's pianistic style had re-emerged somehow in the language of the mid-20th century. Foster's piece - much more attenuated - was a collection of memories of Webern and jazz, arranged by false starts and frustrations, but guided by an overriding resilience.
The centrepiece was something else. Szram and Karl Lutchmayer (representing the 30s and 40s) gave an excellent pre-performance introduction to the piece that blended biographical titbits, scholarly research and musical insight. A welcome glimpse into the world that so fascinates Alkan's fans.
Having four players was, I think, a mixed blessing. Certainly the flow of the work was disrupted a little by four different interpretive styles but, at the same time, this is not a sonata to be judged in anything like conventional terms, so such disjunctures ultimately served its peculiar dramatic and musical design. Sam Liu - unfortunately or appropriately, depending on your perspective - allowed his fingers to get carried away a little by the impetuosities of the 20s movement: his technique failed him at points, and some passages were noticeably fluffed. But, dramatically, this wasn't wholly a problem: my impression was that the arc of the sonata moves towards a sort of inverted climax of repose and surety, in its third movement, the 40s. It is life's movement from excess to wisdom that is the work's story.
Szram himself took on the biggest challenge, the 30s 'Quasi-Faust' movement, a lengthy tone-poem for piano all of its own, featuring an 8-part 'exorcism by fugue' at its climax. This, I imagine, is the sort of music that gets Alkanites most excited: absurd keyboard figurations, bewildering technique and a bludgeoning approach to formal construction. Heavy metal for the 19th century. Szram's playing was up to the fight: he is one of only a handful of pianists believed to have performed the complete sonata, and it was fitting that he took the showpiece movement.
Musically, however, I found much more to love in the second half of the work. The 40s, 'Une hereux ménage', are represented by the 'Happy home life', music of gentle chorales, babbling left-hand figures and harmonies that are never quite as simple as one thinks. After 20 minutes of the preceding fireworks, turning 40 had never sounded like such a relief!
The final movement is the real masterstroke, a slow grind that draws itself slower and lower into the dust. Douglas Finch's playing of it belied questions of its suitability as a sonata finale. It made a lasting impression, staying the right side of dirge, but retaining the necessary heaviness, and demonstrated that piano virtuosity isn't always about speed..