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(Registered Charity number 276199)
Vice-Presidents: Nicholas King, Hugh Macdonald,
Wilfrid Mellers, Richard Shaw
Secretary: Nicholas King, 42 St. Alban's Hill, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, HP3 9NG
e-mail: secretary@alkansociety.org
Chairman: Eliot Levin
Treasurer: Averil Kovacs Archivist: Brian Doyle Bulletin Editor/Webmaster: David Conway
Bulletin e-mail: info@alkansociety.org
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All contents of this Bulletin © The Alkan Society, 2004
BULLETIN no. 67 September 2004
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Editor’s notes
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We begin this bulletin with a review by Peter Grove of the Ronald Smith Celebration organised at
the Royal Academy of Music on 9th September, and with Eliot Levins memories of Ronald,
which he shared on that occasion.
Just a week previously the Society had sponsored a recital by Thomas Wakefield at University
College London, on which we also report. Mr. Wakefield performs too rarely in London and it is
very gratifying to know that he will be undertaking a recital of Alkan rarities for the Society early
next year – we will circulate details as soon as appropriate.
Your Editor has had a busy summer and takes the opportunity to write in the Bulletin on part of
what he did on his holidays – namely an excursion to the town whose name was taken by Alkan’s
family, Morhange. He also attended the 13th Biennial Conference on Nineteenth Century Music in
Durham in July. A full report on this event, in which Alkan surfaced in a leading or support role
in many contributions, is held over until our next issue in December, but mention must be made,
at least, of Kenneth Hamilton’s effervescent lecture and recital on Alkan’s ‘Concerto’ from op.
39, and Jacqueline Waeber’s ‘case-study of generic interplay’ between Alkan’s ‘Chants’ and
Mendelssohn’s ‘Lieder ohne Worte’. We hope in any case to bring these before Society members
during the coming year for their delectation.
Performances of the ’Concerto’ are no longer as rare as they were. John Longley contacted us to
let us know of his monster Alkan recital as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival fringe, including
the Concerto, ‘Le Tambour bat aux champs’ and many other pieces. We congratulate him on his
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 67, September 2004
‘Ronald Smith: A Celebration’ at the Royal Academy of
Music, 9th September 2004
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This event was called “Ronald Smith: A Celebration” with good reason. The obituaries have been
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written, and it is now right that we should honour our late President by looking forward and
celebrating his impact on the musical world: not least in the array of fine musicians taking part in the
concert, all of whom had benefited from their study or association with Ronald.
The Duke’s Hall at the R.A.M. was filled with a large number of friends as well as members of the
Society; well over a hundred people. It is an impressive room, lined with portraits of British
musicians, some shown at a very young age, and four huge chandeliers hold the lights in reproductions
of natural French horns. The Steinway grand was excellent and sounded well in the generous acoustic.
It is appropriate here to express our thanks to the Principal of the Academy, Curtis Price, for making
this venue available to us.
After Nicholas King’s welcome and introduction, we began with the youngest contributor, the
seriously talented 18-year-old Jianing Kong, who is about to begin his studies at the Royal College.
Many could hear Ronald’s influence in his sensitive performance of Chopin’s A flat Etude from Op.
25, in which he clearly but subtly brought out all the melody and counterpoint from the “Aeolian harp”
texture. His technique was in no doubt either in two extremely demanding studies from the same set,
the G sharp minor (No. 6) in thirds and the powerful and terrifying (to lesser pianists) “Winter Wind”
(no. 11) in A minor. He also reminded us of Ronald’s distinguished performances and recording of all
the Mazurkas in the A minor, Op. 17 No. 4, in another expressive and controlled performance.
William Fong, a prize-winner in our centenary piano competition who is now Head of Keyboard at the
Purcell School, where Ronald had many pupils, followed with Alkan’s G flat major Etude from Op. 35
(No. 10), Chant d’amour – chant de mort. It is a long piece and hard to make convincing, but one
would never have known after this performance. William shaped it beautifully and I think would have
convinced even the less committed Alkanians in the audience.
Claudia Conway, the daughter of our Bulletin editor and Webmaster, could have been daunted by the
large setting and audience, but she showed no nerves in her singing of Alkan’s Trois anciennes
mélodies juives and Verset de Psaume 42, in which she was alertly accompanied by our vice-president
Richard Shaw. It was good to be reminded of Alkan’s Jewish faith in these short but very touching
settings. She first sang the pieces at our smaller-scale meeting at University College, and very well
too, but she has certainly gained in depth and confidence since then.
It had been hoped to include one of Ronald’s own compositions in the programme, but that must
remain a project for the future. Instead, we had the first performance of Raymond Head’s “Of Bells
and Birds (In Memoriam Ronald Smith)”. Kirsten Johnson introduced this short three-movement work
and played it in masterly style. There is indeed plenty still to be said in tonal music, and this new piece
managed the difficult feat of being approachable but never resorting to quasi-popular styles that
patronise the listener. The first section used the bell sounds suggested in the title. Then came a
scherzo-like section in somewhat wild style, demanding a good technique. Finally Ronald’s sense of
humour was celebrated in the last section, with an unashamed C major close. It was a very effective
piece, which made its point well and at just the right length.
It hardly needs to be said that all Ronald’s pupils played without the score – an ability which he often
stressed in his teaching. The second young student, Omri Epstein, showed considerable talent too in
Alkan’s Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue, Op. 31 No. 6, and the Etude in B major from Op. 35 (No.
11), the piece with a “hidden melody” that demands great independence of the fingers to be made
clear. It is also a long piece with some very similar passages and key-changes, and Omri kept his head
admirably when he momentarily lost his way in the middle; I think few would have noticed, but it
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 67, September 2004
happens to everybody once in a while and it takes a good musician to find the solution in a satisfactory
manner. It certainly had very little effect on his poise, and by the time he reached the final pages it
mattered very little in the overall impression of an excellent musician.
Christine Stevenson has played for the Society before, and appears on the Symposium compilation
CD. We ought to have heard her much more. She played beautifully in Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la
Villa d’Este, that early example of impressionism from his third book of Années de pèlerinage which
Ravel must have known before he wrote his piece with a similar title in 1901. She followed this with
two more of Ronald’s favourite Alkan pieces, La vision from Esquisses (Op. 63 No. 1) and the first
Chant in E major from Op. 38, which Ronald always compared with Fauré when he played it.
Our Chairman, Eliot Levin, then addressed the company with some well-chosen anecdotes of his
meetings with Ronald [see below: Ed.] he kept it short and humorous, and led neatly into the final
item from Yonty Solomon, the Bach Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita in the grandiose
transcription by Busoni. This was another of Ronald’s favourite pieces: the first time I heard him in
concert, he played it before his mini-lecture and first performance of Alkan’s Grande Sonate at the
Queen Elizabeth Hall in June 1974. All of that came before the interval, of course: we still had a
selection of Chopin Mazurkas and Beethoven’s Appassionata to follow. A few of us remember a more
recent lunchtime concert at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, in which Ronald Smith, James Gibb and
Yonty Solomon, after some marvellous solo performances, joined forces for a hilarious six-handed
version of Liszt’s Grand galop chromatique. Mr. Solomon was in more serious mood here, and his
tremendous performance of the Chaconne made an ideal close to the concert.
All ran very smoothly, finishing exactly at 9 o’clock as promised, leaving plenty of time for a
reception in a much smaller room for the next hour. Nicholas King, who devised the programme and
invited all the participants, deserves a huge vote of thanks for putting together a wonderful tribute to
Ronald. Ronald’s widow Anne was present, and though this must still be a difficult time for her, I feel
sure that she appreciated the occasion, which did full justice to a real gentleman, a great musician and
an inspiring teacher.
On a personal note: I was recently telephoned by a record collector and dealer in Germany who was
keen to obtain some accurate information about Ronald’s discography for his documentation. I could
not answer all his questions, but I was able to consult a letter from Ronald written in December 1968 –
a typically generous and lengthy response to my “fan letter” which followed his Alkan lecture-recitals
for the BBC, written several months later because it was only then that I discovered that the organ
scholar at my college, one N. King, was a Smith pupil. This is not the place to discuss its contents, but
I would just share the P.S. for the moment – “Forgive illeg. writing … in the train”. I’m sure many
others have had the same experience!
Peter Grove
Ronald Smith – A Tribute by Eliot Levin
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Rather than add to the formal tributes which have already appeared, rightly testifying to the fine
qualities of Ronald Smith, both as a man and as a pianist, I should like to share with you some
personal memories. I do not remember precisely when I first heard Ronald Smith play, nor when I first
met him. Both must have been in the early ‘70s.
One of the first occasions that I met him was in a house in Ealing, I think, of a lady called Jean
Shilling. It was a Sunday afternoon and we had both arrived early, presumably for a committee
meeting of the Alkan Society. I mentioned that only the day before, I had discovered, to my surprise,
that his recording career extended back to the era of the 78; I had found a three disc set of Bach’s
Triple Concerto in which he was playing with Edwin Fischer and Denis Matthews. “Yes” he said,
before I could draw breath, “It was at Abbey Road. We had three Steinways next to one another with
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 67, September 2004
Fischer, who taught us both, in the middle. Oh! We had such a job getting him to play in a modern
It so happened that we were standing by a piano. He lifted the drop and, standing there, he played the
opening phrase three times over producing three different sounds, à la Fischer, à la Matthews and à la
I am not a pianist - how he did it was lost on me - but I guess that even an advanced student would
have learned greatly from the example.
He was, in the most complimentary sense, a proud man, knowing his abilities, but never showing off.
He was well aware that Schmidtkowski or von Schmidtowitz would have furthered his career more
than Smith. “Fortunately,” he remarked in his quiet way, “we are called by our fathers’ names;
otherwise I would have been ‘Basher, the pianist’”.
Never showing off? Well, hardly ever. I remember the twinkle in his eye at an Alkan Society Day
when he remarked casually that the tempo of the next piece required him to play 14 notes per second.
He was aware, too, that devoting so much to the cause of a largely forgotten composer was not, in
today’s parlance, a good career move. He was an Alkan specialist, but, I should like to claim, that he
was as much a Beethoven specialist, a Chopin specialist and a Liszt specialist.
I bumped into him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in about 1984 and mentioned to him that I was about to
issue a recording of the first movement of the ‘Emperor’ concerto played by Eugen d’Albert. He was
overjoyed that this long rumoured recording would at last be heard, but, the time for preparation being
longer drawn out than anticipated, I had the feeling that he began to doubt the genuineness of my
claim. When eventually I was able to send him a tape, I had the temerity to hint that he might like to
write something for the sleeve. The detailed and highly instructive appreciation which he wrote must
have taken a considerable time, even for a mind working at the rate his did. Indeed, one might remark
that had Ronald Smith chosen to be a critic rather than a pianist, music might have gained as much as
it would have lost.
I have no experience of Ronald as a teacher, but I do recall more than once his firm declaration that
Most peoples’ practice consists in making their faults indelible’. I guess that he expected somewhat
more than the best his students could attain; I guess, too, that his students respected this, recognizing
in this his own inner compulsion.
One afternoon we worked together drafting some papers for the Alkan Centenary Celebration of 1988.
One sentence we rejected repeatedly for not expressing precisely our intentions. Suddenly Ronald’s
face went deep crimson and he strode from the room. About five minutes later he returned, as quietly
as he had left, and the sentence soon expressed precisely our intentions. Every word had to tell in a
sentence, as much as every note in a score.
Alas, various commitments prevented me from attending a number of his concerts; on the occasion of
his 80th birthday concert I was prevented by a gentleman committing suicide at Clapham. Another
delay caused me to arrive on the late side at the concert to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fairfield
Halls. I grabbed a ticket and rushed up the stairs, not stopping for a programme. Holding the door
open about 1½mm, I could hear, but not see, a towering performance of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. I
thought, “I don’t recall ever hearing Ronald play it like this; he really has changed his views.” Of
course, as it ended and I opened the door further I found I was applauding Yonty Solomon.
For Ronald Smith, Bach and Busoni were two giants. Most appropriately, Yonty Solomon will now
conclude this recital with a performance of the Chaconne.
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 67, September 2004
Thomas Wakefield Recital at University College, London
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Alkan Society Sponsored Recital on 2nd September 2004.
From 30th August to 3rd September University College London hosted an International Post-Graduate
Conference in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Delegates came from all over Europe, including Central
Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. A wide variety of papers were delivered – none of
them alas mentioning Alkan, although, in the secular field, Jewish boxers, klesmer musicians and
authors all figured, as well as (in a paper given by your Editor) Alkan’s contemporary, the disreputable
composer, fantasist and blackmailer Isaac Nathan.
The conference gave the Society an excellent opportunity of fulfilling its mission to spread knowledge
of Alkan and in co-operation with UCL a piano recital by Thomas Wakefield was arranged to which
Society members as well as conference delegates were invited. The programme spanned a range of
Jewish composers – Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Alkan and Gershwin - and proved to be the basis of an
electrifying display of an astonishing technique.
We began with two of Alkan’s rarely heard transcriptions – ‘La garde passe’ from Grétry’s ‘Les Deux
Avares’ and the chorus of the Priests of Dagon from Handel’s ‘Samson’. An excellent introduction to
the way in which Alkan ‘orchestrates’ on the piano by use of differing textures, they also remind us of
Alkan’s deep sense of musical history, unusual in most of the virtuosi of his era.
There followed three of Mendelssohn’s Characteristic Pieces, opus 7, followed by four of his more
familiar ‘Songs without Words’. The opus 7 pieces were new to me and I think to most of the
audience. They too show a heavy debt to the past, in this case that of J. S. Bach. Mr. Wakefield’s
presentation showcased their intricacy and ingenuity, but for all their intellect they could not persuade
as effectively as the Songs. The Funeral March (op. 62 no. 3), which Moscheles was later to
orchestrate for Mendelssohn’s own obsequies, came over especially as a perfect gem, simultaneously
noble and ironic, almost Mahlerian, a romantic masterpiece in miniature.
Our first taste of ‘pure’ Alkan was a selection of the op. 31 ‘Préludes’ concentrating on those with
Jewish connections. No. 5, a paraphrase of Psalm 150, which until now I had thought playable only on
the pédalier, was delivered with authoritative bravura and nicely-judged pedalling which made
booming of the cymbals in the central section both convincing and musical. The Synagogue Melody
(no. 6) and no. 13, inspired by the Song of Songs, are perhaps amongst Alkan’s most performed
pieces, whilst no. 20, in essence a klesmer ‘skotshne’ dance, paved the way perfectly for the next item
on the programme, Gershwin’s familiar ‘Three Preludes’ in jazz style.
The second half of the recital began with Alkan’s bracing ‘Minuetto alla Tedesca’, op. 46. I pity any
court ladies who might be required to dance to this number, tornado force both in its rhythm and its
often bizarre harmonies. Ronald Smith comments ‘A violent wrench from F minor back to A major in
Alkan’s trio drives him to the frontiers of credibility’; but in Mr. Wakefield we had a guide with a
clear perspective of where the composer was leading. In the following three pieces from the second
book of ‘Chants’ we had the smoother but sinister ‘Procession-Nocturne’, followed by an enigmatic
Andantino hinting here and there at Chopin, and a chilly and dark Barcarolle in G minor. This last
reminds us how Alkan was inspired in his ‘Chants’ by Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs Without Words’, on
which they are a sort of commentary or paraphrase. Ronald Smith is not too friendly to book 2 of the
‘Chants’ in his biography but Mr. Wakefield’s performance was more than persuasive in making the
case for airing them.
The final piece on the programme was Alkan’s very rarely performed transcription for solo piano of
the overture to Meyerbeer’s opera ‘Le Prophète’. By the time the opera entered rehearsal in 1849 it
was already far too long for performance and the overture was axed by the composer at this stage – the
orchestral score has been lost, as have the parts (if they ever existed). But Alkan had already been
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Alkan Society Bulletin no. 67, September 2004
commissioned to produce his arrangement, as a consequence of which the only published version of
the overture was in the piano score. As a piece of music it proves the conventional wisdom that
Meyerbeer was not adept at generating large-scale structures using music alone. But as a piano solo it
is just sensational, with its evocation of every variety of orchestral colour and instrumental
combination. Mr. Wakefield’s mastery of this extraordinary material was prodigious, and merited the
storm of applause that ensued.
But even this heroic performance was capped by Mr. Wakefield’s encore, Alkan’s ‘Le chemin de fer’
of 1844. By the end of this dizzying train-ride, the first in the history of piano literature, the audience
was thoroughly exhilarated and exhausted, although Mr. Wakefield seemed admirably unruffled. His
performance was justly eulogised by Eliot Levin, and the audience’s enthusiasm must mean his
reputation is now secure as far as Riga and Dnepropetrovsk. How fortunate for the Society that he will
again be displaying his formidable talents for us early next year in a recital to contain many of Alkan’s
most elusive works, and will also be giving a recital in tribute to Ronald Smith to mark the Alkan
Society Piano Scholarship this November (see below).
Forthcoming Events
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The Alkan Society Piano Scholarship 2004, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
As a prelude to the Scholarship Competition, Richard Shaw will be giving an illustrated talk on The
Alkan Miniatures in the Fitzwilliam College Auditorium on Wednesday 13th October at 6 p.m.
Alkan composed well over one hundred tiny pieces for the piano, nearly all unusual in some respect,
some lasting for little more than a minute, The whole series displays an enormous range of style, scope
and technical difficulty, and present a challenge for the beginner and advanced pianist alike. Richard
Shaw’s talk will have particular reference to the work set for this year's scholarship: 'Song of Songs',
No.13 of the twenty-five Preludes Op. 31. The presentation will be informal, and audience
participation is invited.
The Scholarship Competition will be held on Friday 12th November at 6pm in the College
Auditorium. Interested members of the public are invited.
A recital will be given by Thomas Wakefield on Saturday 13th November at 8.00 pm in the
College Auditorium, and dedicated to the memory of Ronald Smith. The programme is scheduled to
include Alkan’s transcriptions of the overture to ‘Le Prophète’ and his version of the first movement
of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto, including the remarkable cadenza, as well as works by
Chopin and Liszt. Tickets are available at £10 from the Fitzwilliam Porter’s Lodge (tel 01223 332000)
or by e-mail from Dr. Peter Tregear (pjt21@cam.ac.uk).
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Marc-André Hamelin is undertaking a number of European performances in the last quarter of this
year, many of which will feature Alkan. These include a recital at the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan on
November 21st where he will be playing Schumann, Albeniz and Alkan, and a recital in Paris at the
Theâtre le Trianon on 6th December when the programme will include Alkan, Haydn, Liszt and
Schumann. On Sunday November 28th at 3.30 pm he is performing a similar programme at the
Performing Arts Building (PATS), University of Surrey, Guildford (box office telephone: 01483
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