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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Charles-Valentin Alkan - 25 Préludes (Mark Viner)


Composer: Charles-Valentin Alkan

  • 25 Préludes dans les tons majeurs et mineurs, Op. 31

Mark Viner, piano
Date: 2019
Label: Piano Classics



After the outstanding recording by Paul Wee of Alkan’s Symphony and Concerto for solo piano in the November issue comes another quite exceptional Alkan disc. Mark Viner is engaged in what is intended to be a complete survey of all his piano music. This is the second volume, following his acclaimed recording of the 12 Études, Op 35 (1/18).

What a quirky, compelling, unpredictable and endearing set are these Préludes. They cover all the major and minor keys, bookended by two in C major, thus are 25 in total (rather than Chopin’s 24), arranged in a sequence that rises from C major (No 1) to F minor (No 2), then chromatically: No 3 in D flat major, No 4 in F sharp minor and so on. They were first published in three volumes in 1847. The background to all this, together with Alkan’s preface (in which, importantly, he emphasises that the Préludes are for piano or organ), their first review (by Fétis) and a detailed commentary on each number are all in the exemplary and scholarly booklet by Viner, a clear successor to one of his mentors, Leslie Howard.

Those unfamiliar with Alkan’s Op 31 and expecting the high-flown virtuosity of the Symphony and Concerto, say, will be disappointed. Only in the disconcerting penultimate prelude do we have an illustration of what must have been Alkan’s truly staggering keyboard technique manifest in ‘a continuous stream of demisemiquavers at a bloodcurdling prestissimo’ (Viner) and including a mischievous quote from Chopin’s Op 10 No 4 en route. For the most part, this is Alkan in subdued, contemplative and (often) experimental mode. Listen to No 8, the best known of the set, ‘The Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore’, an unsettling tone poem that, as Viner says, ‘can raise eyebrows and inspire awe even in today’s jaded and desensitised times’. Several have Hebraic overtones, some beg to have jaunty lyrics attached (Nos 7, 15, 23), No 5 (‘Psalm 150’: avec enthousiasme) has an insistent high F major exclamation (‘Laus Deo’) above conflicting harmonies below, while No 10’s buoyant fugal toccata, joyfully dispatched, lightly pedalled and with perfectly balance voices, makes you want to hear Viner in the Bach Partitas.

I hope that is enough to whet your appetite. This is a superb disc, beautifully recorded, quite outshining Laurent Martin’s fine account from 1989, and is another feather in the cap of this remarkable British pianist.

-- Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone


Charles-Valentin Alkan (30 November 1813 – 29 March 1888) was a French composer and pianist. At the height of his fame in the 1830s and 1840s he was, alongside his friends and colleagues Chopin and Liszt, among the leading pianists in Paris, where he spent virtually his entire life. His music requires extreme technical virtuosity, reflecting his own abilities. Busoni ranked Alkan with Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms as one of the five greatest composers for the piano since Beethoven. For much of the 20th century, Alkan's work remained in obscurity, but from the 1960s onwards it was steadily revived.


Mark Viner, born in 1989, is recognised as one of the most exciting British concert pianists of his generation and is becoming increasingly well-known for his bold championing of unfamiliar pianistic terrain. Viner studied at the Purcell School of Music with Tessa Nicholson, then at the Royal College of Music with Niel Immelman, graduating with a distinction in 2013. Viner won 1st prize at the Alkan-Zimmerman International Piano Competition in Athens, Greece in 2012. He is very active in the recording studio and his recordings on the Piano Classics label have garnered critical acclaim.


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