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(Registered Charity number 276199)
President: Leslie Howard AM
Vice-Presidents: Anne Smith, Nicholas King, Hugh Macdonald,
Richard Shaw
Secretary: Nicholas King, 42 St. Alban's Hill, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, HP3 9NG
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Chairman: Eliot Levin
Treasurer: Averil Kovacs e-mail:
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Archivist: Brian Doyle Bulletin Editor/Webmaster: David Conway
Bulletin e-mail:
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All contents of this Bulletin © The Alkan Society, 2009
BULLETIN no. 81 October 2009
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Leslie Howard
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We are delighted and honoured that Leslie
Howard AM has agreed to become President of
the Alkan Society.
Born in Melbourne, Dr. Howard has lived in
England since 1972. Renowned, amongst other
achievements, for his recordings of the
complete piano works of Franz Liszt, Dr.
Howard has demonstrated his sympathy for the
wider romantic piano repertoire, including the
works of Alkan. He has been described by the
Guardian newspaper as “a master of a tradition
of pianism in serious danger of dying out” and
as “a virtuoso in the true Romantic style, with
emphasis on musicality as much as on bravura”.
Leslie Howard is an acclaimed artist
worldwide, giving not only concerts (solo,
chamber music and concerto performances) but masterclasses, and is a frequent juror in music
competitions. He is also a composer and editor, notably of the works of Liszt. His awards
include the Ferenc Liszt Medal of Honour (Hungary), the Order of Australia, and the
American Liszt Society Medal of Honour.
Dr. Howard is also president of the British Liszt Society and it is therefore with great pleasure
that your Society has arranged, with the Liszt Society, for him to give a recital featuring the
music of both composers, on November 18th (see p. 12 for details of ticket application).
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 81 – October 2009
Concert Reviews
Thomas Wakefield recital, 25th March 2009
At Steinways, London
The formalities of the Society’s Annual General Meeting having been discharged with
unwonted (though not irreverent) despatch, more than thirty members and guests, including
members of the Liszt Society, settled down for a substantial recital by our good friend
Thomas Wakefield.
The entire programme comprised originals or transcriptions by Alkan and Liszt, starting with
Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor for organ. The Fantasia is
inevitably (perhaps necessarily) presented with unvarying grandeur and rhetoric by organists,
so it was particularly instructive to hear a version which exposed unusual levels of mystery
and tragedy as the complex chromaticisms unfolded. Total conviction on the part of the
listener who is used to the organ score may have to wait for another day, and there will always
be fierce academic discussion about some of the notational and harmonic ambiguities of
Bach’s manuscript, but it was certainly salutary to encounter the substantially-different
conception as devised by Liszt and executed by Wakefield. The fugue weaved its merry way
with dexterity; here it was much easier to recognise and accept the greater level of
contrapuntal highlighting which is possible on the piano, despite occasional smudges of
fingerwork here and there.
Alkan’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor is one of those
curiosities of which most members are aware, but few have heard. It was with a keen sense of
anticipation that we prepared ourselves for this performance of the first movement,
particularly its renowned cadenza, with which Busoni is said to have appalled his audience
when he performed it for the first time. Wakefield gave us a deft performance, in which
orchestral colourings (especially of woodwind) were conveyed with considerable success.
The cadenza itself, with its teasing thematic cross-references to another well-known work of
the composer (was Beethoven consciously aware of creating these, or was it simply sub-
conscious on his part?) and extraordinary harmonic shifts, was of especial interest to the
academics and performers in the audience.
Wakefield continued with two transcriptions by Liszt. The first, of Schubert’s
Liebesbotschaft, is in total stylistic contrast to the Beethoven, and presents its own challenges
of technique, which were handled with secure under-statement. The first half concluded with
the Wedding March and Dance of the Elves from Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream; an extraordinary meshing of the two movements, with the main
theme of the second episode wrenched up a semi-tone from its original G major; not so much
a transcription as an arrangement bordering on the fantastic. Surely no organist, hearing this
version, can ever again submit to playing the original in its pure version for all those brides
who know of no other choice for their big day?
After a pleasant interval with refreshments, during which we were able to view the Steinway
showroom (but sadly not the Hall of Fame, though a picture of a youthful Yonty Solomon was
identified through the glass windows), and during which several members played tentative
notes on a considerable collection of stock which few will ever be able to afford, we re-
grouped. The first half having consisted of re-workings, the second was of virgin material,
commencing with three highly-contrasted pieces of Alkan from his earlier years. Not many
members may have heard the Bourrée d’Auvergne before, with its Bartókian foretastes; this
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 81 – October 2009
was handled with suitable panache and whimsy in turn. Relaxation was afforded by a
carefully-controlled performance of the Andante Romantique before a pulsating reading of Le
Chemin de fer, in which redolences of the pre-Beeching days of mighty steam locomotives
were tempered by the realisation that those of Alkan’s era would have been much more
primitive. But then Alkan always was ahead of his time.
The man in the street, when (or if) he thinks of Liszt, will generally cite the extrovert and
virtuoso qualities of much of the œuvre, so it was good to be reminded of the greater austerity,
even bleakness, of some of the later compositions. Nuages gris is a remarkably introspective
sketch in which the developing sonorities of the seven-octave piano are exploited, whilst
Csárdás macabre combines lively Hungarian energy with grotesque harmonic twists and
pungent colouring. Both works were delivered with convincing command.
The concert proper ended with two of Alkan’s earlier pieces. Palpitamento is, regrettably, one
of those items never yet in print (the Society ought to take on board an edition of some of
these pieces for the bi-centenary, if a willing publisher can be found in these contra-
speculative times); a piece of deep sentiment with tenor thumbing of the type which was to be
developed by Brahms a couple of decades later as one of his trademark “inventions”. Marche
Triomphale formed a fitting and rousing conclusion to the advertised programme, in which
Wakefield seemed to find fresh reserves of pianistic energy and facility when most performers
would have been flagging. Generous and well-deserved applause was rewarded with two
further miniatures of Alkan, both executed in masterful fashion, in which your reviewer was
left with the uncanny impression that the best wine of Cana had been left until the end, so far
as intrinsic pianistic challenge was concerned.
We must thank Thomas Wakefield not only for his playing, but also for the careful crafting of
the programme and for the splendidly-informative programme notes provided for his
audience. Here was an occasion worthy to follow in the footsteps of our late and revered first
President; we all look forward to the next such occasion.
Unus ex omnibus
Mark Viner at Cheltenham, 17th July 2009
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The Society was glad to support the recital of the young British pianist Mark Viner at this
year’s Cheltenham Festival. An internet review by Ann Dunn reads in part:
‘Mark Viner is a virtuoso pianist without fuss or mannerisms. His forthright playing of three
compositions left one gasping at his command of the keyboard in his choice of unusual
repertoire. [….]
‘It was an interesting treat to hear Alkan’s Symphonie from Douze Etudes Op39 where
throughout the four movements one could superimpose orchestral sounds. The slow
movement, a funeral march, developed into a lament played with a mixture of calm and
tenderness; the Scherzo was appropriately in ternary form and included a tongue-in-cheek
salon waltz with a fluid fast moving Trio. Most amazing was the pianistic skill displayed by
Viner in the final movement with flourishes and bursts of extreme passion’.
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 81 – October 2009
Alkan (and others) in Kiev
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When the pianist Jonathan Powell originally spoke to your Editor (who is presently based in
the Ukraine) about performing in Kiev, it was Arnold Bax who was on his mind. In 1910 Bax,
who was visiting Russia, met and fell in love with a Ukrainian girl, Natalia Karginska, and
pursued her to Kiev. Although the infatuation ended unhappily for Bax, the affair inspired his
first Piano Sonata, a passionate work which ends with the bells of Kiev ringing out. But this
work had so far never been performed in the city which inspired it......
With the assistance of the Kiev musical activist Yuriy Suldin, we were able to book the
remarkable Actor’s House, (a former Karaite synagogue designed by the eccentric architect
Vladimir Gorodetsky), which houses a small Steinway grand in its auditorium. But then
Jonathan suggested, that as he was coming so far, why not arrange two recitals, with one to
include Alkan’s Symphony from op. 39? With the support of the Alkan Society therefore we
arranged to perform the Alkan in the Actor’s House and secured the Kiev House of Scientists
(which houses a full Yamaha grand) for the recital including Bax.
British pianists are rarely seen in Kiev concert halls, and certainly not with programmes such
as those played by Jonathan. The House of Scientists recital began with Schubert’s unfinished
piano sonata in C, nicknamed Reliquie, given a sombre and impressive rendition as suits this
music, which seems to presage what may have been a new stage in the composer’s evolution.
Yuriy noted that it was in effect a novelty for Kiev to hear Schubert played for musicality and
not sentimentality. The remainder of the programme was divided between English and
Slavonic composers. The Bax was received with great enthusiasm, and no less enthusiasm
greeted two Sonatas by John White and a Sonata and a Barcarolle by Jonathan himself.
Representing Russia in this monster programme was Rachmaninoff (the Etudes Tableaux op.
33). Concluding the programme was a great rarity – the Sonata-Fantaisie of Felix
Blumenfeld. Blumenfeld was a pianist and composer who taught at the Kiev Conservatoire –
his most famous pupil was Horovitz. This remarkable piece begins as a fairly ‘run of the mill’
virtuoso item but reaches notable and effective heights of inventiveness, both melodic and
harmonic. The applause for the concert as a whole was thunderous.
Many of those at the House of Scientists also came to the Actors’ House two days later for an
even bolder programme, challenging for the audience as well as the soloist. This comprised
the Concord Sonata of Charles Ives; the Concerto for Solo Piano no. 4 of Michael Finnissy;
music by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (who was in the audience); and the
Alkan Symphony. All of these pieces, save for the Silvestrov, were, we believe, Kiev
premieres. The audience listened with rapt attention to the Ives, and stood up valiantly to the
violent assault of the Finnissy. (Your Editor, who acted as page turner for this formidable
piece, found this one of the most terrifying experiences of his life).
Almost at the opposite end of the expressive scale was the music of Silvestrov for which
Jonathan was joined by the violinist Yulia Suldina. Suldina played two delicate Serenades for
solo violin, music on the edge of dreams and silence. With Jonathan she played the elegiac
piece 25.9.1993 - in memory of P. I. Tch. written to commemorate the centenary of
Tchaikovsky’s death – similarly evoking the ghosts of Tchaikovsky’s melodies.
Jonathan gave a masterly performance of the Alkan Symphonie which was greeted by the
audience with intense attention and rapturous applause. Silvestrov in a long conversation with
Powell after the concert expressed his delight at having been able to hear this (for Kiev)
legendary piece. Audience members were profuse in their admiration both for Alkan’s music
and for Jonathan’s virtuoso technique; several people told me that it was years since Kiev had
experienced such bravura and panache in the concert hall.
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