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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Charles-Valentin Alkan - Organ Music (Kevin Bowyer)


Information

Composer: Charles-Valentin Alkan
  • (01) Treize prières, Op. 64
  • (14) Petits préludes sur les huit gammes du plainchant
  • (22) Impromptu sur le chorale de Luther "Un fort rempart est notre Dieu", Op. 69

Kevin Bowyer, organ
Date: 1988
Label: Nimbus Records
https://www.wyastone.co.uk/alkan-the-organ-music.html

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Review

This superb CD was originally released in 1988, and is still widely available on the internet. As for numerous other composers featured in his huge Nimbus discography, Kevin Bowyer blazed a trail for the absurdly neglected French composer Valentin Alkan, yet few have followed his lead. Bowyer himself subsequently recorded two CDs, with a third pending, for Toccata Classics, taking care not to duplicate this Nimbus recital. According to the Alkan Society, Bowyer is still alone in having recorded the 13 Prières, op.64, though one or two others, most notably John Wells on the Ribbonwood label, have done the odd one or two, sometimes in arrangements by Alkan's friend, César Franck. Bowyer's is still the sole version of the Impromptu op.69, although earlier this year Toccata Classics released Alkan's complete music for piano four hands, featuring the phenomenal arrangement by Roger Smalley (review). The somewhat easier Petits Préludes have been recorded by others, by King on Symposium (1062, 1992) and Andrew Canning on Landscape Music (LMICD 001, 1999); the first recording was made by Georges Lartigau on the German label Motette in 1984, not available on CD.

The Prières (Prayers) are a revelation. Thirteen pieces of outstanding, even outlandish variety and interest, inspired and glorious, devotional yet frequently playful, sometimes, like the seventh, so weird as to be practically extraterrestrial. The third is a proto-minimalist piece that knocks today's post-modern pretenders into a cocked hat, the eighth a stirring battle hymn, the final one an unforgettable expression of exultation.

By contrast, the eight manuals-only Petits Préludes are as diminutive as their title indicates, averaging under a minute each. Alkan's only work written expressly for the organ, the Preludes are gentle and unassuming, a timeless stroll through eight Gregorian modes, and the calm before the storm of the mighty, almost unholy, Impromptu. This title is Alkan's joke - from a quiet opening, this work builds quickly to an imposing, complex, altogether astounding piece, a masterclass in variation form. There are four sections played as a single movement, each keeping the same metronome mark. The final, massive fugue - almost half the playing time - is mind-blowing in its energy and intensity as it whirls like a chromatic dervish, shaking the nave to its foundations before Alkan shakes an almost impromptu ending out of his sleeve. Bowyer miraculously keeps on top of it all, sprouting auxiliary hands and feet as required: already at this very early stage in his career he was staking out his claim as one of the finest organists of modern times.

This was in fact one of Bowyer's earliest recordings for Nimbus, a contract which was to bequeath posterity around 50 almost invariably memorable CDs. The discography available on his website is three years out of date, but already 14 pages long! Bowyer's incredible Sorabji Organ Project is still rolling forward, but its completion promises to be one of the greatest organ events in the history of music.

Salisbury Cathedral organ was built by the illustrious Henry Willis & Sons, and both are going strong. The organ dates from 1877 and was renovated by the same company in 1969. Though clearly lacking the long illustrious history of the Cathedral itself, the instrument has a fine reputation - the Cathedral proudly describes it as "one of the finest pipe organs in the world". New technology would do it greater justice nowadays - the recording is a little on the quiet side, and there is minor background hiss in evidence between tracks - but this is such a good buy overall it would be churlish to complain. Ronald Smith's booklet notes are intelligent and well written.

Though the back cover of the CD shows Bowyer sporting a haircut he may wish to forget, these masterly performances are sure to live on, helping keep alive the possibility that future generations will recognise Alkan's haecceity and genius more readily than those who have gone before.

-- ByzantionMusicWeb International

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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.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles-Valentin_Alkan

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Kevin Bowyer (born 9 January 1961 in Southend-on-Sea, England) is an English organist, known for his prolific recording and recital career, and his performances of modern and extremely difficult compositions. Bowyer learnt the piano accordion and organ as a child. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1979 to 1982 with organists Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and Douglas Hawkridge, harpsichordist Virginia Black, and Paul Steinitz. Bowyer has performed and broadcast all over the world, and has released around ninety recordings, including all of Bach's organ music for the Nimbus recording label.

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