Alkan The Organ Music

Alkan’s reputation as a pianist is legendary, his writing for that instrument even outclassing Liszt’s transcendental pianism. It is less commonly known that he was awarded the premier prix of the Paris Conservatoire for organ playing in 1834 when he was twenty: yet, during the remainder of his long life no further performances on the instrument have so far been traced. He has been described as ‘a mysterious composer’. A legend in his own lifetime, contemporaries viewed his genius and mode of life with mingled wonder and dismay. Secretive, obsessional, puritanical and reclusive, he did little to promote his own compositions and after his death there was no question of a revival because much of his best music had not even been heard. Even so, it seems incredible that such compositions as the masterly and uplifting works on this recording should have waited a century and a quarter to reach the public. Certainly this long silence has nothing to do with the quality of the music.


In stock
Catalogue Number

"This disc should appeal to organ fanciers as well as to anyone with a taste for wonderfully extravagant music."

The New York Times

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 yet followed his lead. He is still alone in having recorded the 13 Prières, op.64 the sole version of the Impromptu op.69.
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.
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". 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. 

© 2010-2023 Wyastone. All Rights Reserved.