July 29, 2010 12:04 PM   Subscribe

"In a way I wish it did not require such a formidable technique, because I do not really enjoy sweating over this music." This is virtuoso pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin speaking of Charles-Valentin Alkan, the Romantic pianist said to have made even Liszt nervous, and whose exhilarating works fell into obscurity due to their rigorous technical demands. For a warm-up, here's Alkan's major etude "Allegro barbaro", as performed by Jack Gibbons. A machine recording of his piece Le Chemin de Fer in which you can see the keys being pressed. Recordings of Youtube exist of people attempting his near-impossible Scherzo focoso (and, for comparison, a mechanical rendition of the same). And for encore, here is Hamelin again playing Les Quatre Ages, frequently considered Alkan's most mature work, a sonata depicting the four ages of man.
posted by Rory Marinich (20 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Just wanted to drop a line and say thanks for what looks like a great post. I can't wait to listen to this, but unfortunately I can't do so until after work.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:27 PM on July 29, 2010

For readers with nothing but boggling at virtuosic piano performances planned for the next few hours, like myself, further enjoyment can be had in that old Showoffs and Knucklebusters post linked in the Related Threads box down below.

Thanks Rory Marinich!
posted by carsonb at 12:29 PM on July 29, 2010

From the YouTube description in the mechanical rendition link:

"Scherzo focoso op. 34 provides a remorseless path to pianistic immolation for all but the most invincible techniques. Obsessional torrents of semiquavers, frequent crossings of the hands and inflexible leaps offer no respite but, unlike many other very taxing pieces, this one both looks and sounds as difficult as it is and its coda generates a final fling of virtuosity to end all such displays. Nevertheless one can but wonder if the substance quite justifies its elaboration. Only a corageous performance might tell."

- Ronald Smith -

posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 12:39 PM on July 29, 2010

Oh man. Gibbons looked like he was going to cry at the end of the Allegro, but he landed it! Amazing, daunting stuff.

Here's one MeFi musical thread that probably won't turn into Gaga worship.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 12:40 PM on July 29, 2010


That part at the beginning of the Bad Romance video where what sounds like a harpsichord plays a baroque-like melody is cool.
posted by The Confessor at 12:48 PM on July 29, 2010

GFP! great fucking post.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:09 PM on July 29, 2010

I enjoyed these videos hugely, that playing was superhuman. I grew up with a love for virtuoso guitar playing. This has developed a bit, and nowadays I really like watching technical mastery of any instrument. I won't get into arguments about the actual quality of the music - I'll save that for the YouTube comments - but that was unique and much appreciated.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 1:11 PM on July 29, 2010

Geez, my whole life I've been thinking, if I could just master Liszt's La Campanella I could die knowing I really accomplished something. La Campanella is just a warmup compared to these.
posted by Wet Spot at 1:24 PM on July 29, 2010

Hamelin has huge technique, and yet I'd rather hear him play a Haydn sonata than any of these virtustrosities, as much as I do appreciate the spirit of them.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:41 PM on July 29, 2010

The Confessor

The part at the beginning of the Bad Romance video is, of course, the b minor fugue that ends Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. I was thinking of making a FPP about this in particular. Of course Gaga speeds it up immensely. It's a very interesting fugue, quite long for the Well-Tempered Clavier, and very chromatic, nearly 12-tone. Because of all the chromaticism, you basically HAVE to play it slow. Sped up there's something grating about it, but perhaps that was Gaga's intent--to show her and her hangers-on so fashionably jaded they have to remix their Bach.
posted by Schmucko at 1:45 PM on July 29, 2010

Also, it's interesting that if you go to the YouTube for Bad Romance or the b minor fugue in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, you can get the other linked in the "similar videos" on the right hand side of the screen.
posted by Schmucko at 1:47 PM on July 29, 2010

Argh thank you so much for this post. I came across Alkan a long, long time ago, forgot his name, and thought I'd lost it forever. The pieces I'd heard sounded so wonderfully manic w/o sounding claustrophobic, just some really fun balls-to-wall Romantic comp style.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 1:54 PM on July 29, 2010

This is pretty awesome. Thanks, Rory – I'm going to spend a long time enjoying a lot of these links.

Alkan seems to write some really tough stuff – yeesh, I'm not a great piano player, but listening to those I'm pretty sure it would take me a long, long time to play these pieces well.

Still, I have a feeling Art Tatum probably could have handled them without much difficulty. Really, any pianist who really wants a challenge should try playing some of Art Tatum's stuff. The great Oscar Peterson (who, as you will see there, was no slouch himself) claims that he actually gave up and quit playing the piano entirely for two weeks after he saw Art Tatum play this.

That dude is all finger. Like, he doesn't even have hands. He could hold up his arm to you, and it's like – arm, arm, fingers. No hand, just big ol' wads of fingers. The incredible adroitness of his technique, which is insanely precise without being mechanistic in any way (that's the tough thing at that level) just blows me away.

Up above in the post, I have to say that I love the guy playing the Scherzo Focoso – he reminds me distinctly of a good friend and sometime piano teacher of mine, who was classically trained but was brilliant enough on the keys to dabble in all kinds of things. He had the same little bad habits (shoulders too tense, mostly – he'd be the first to admit it) that didn't really matter because of his masterful focus and concentration. And the linked performance really is incredible.
posted by koeselitz at 1:55 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's the music equivalent of a slot machine jackpot. Fabulous.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:02 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Art Tatum looks extraordinary — I'll have to give his work a listen.

Three Youtube-related asides:

First, I discovered Alkan through the Youtube comments on Boris Berezovsky's performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz. You know how on every Beatles Youtube video there's a slew of commenters saying things like "BEATLE SUX OASIS RULE" and "TISH IS NO WONDERWALL"? Well, the classical music world has similar arguments online, only they use intricate English and cite obscure recordings in their defense. One such argument compared Alkan to Liszt and immediately dissolved into a fight about whether Alkan's works were sophisticated or merely difficult. I looked him up and found Gibbons' linked Allegro barbaro.

Second, I recall looking at one amateur performance of said Allegro and being astonished because, there in the comments, Jack Gibbons had posted from his Youtube account, offering advice to the amateur who'd uploaded the videos. Imagine a world-class virtuoso pianist who's willing to look at other people attempt difficult classical works and give them advice, simply because they've shown up in the Related Videos on the side. Extraordinary.

Third, to the best of my knowledge Alkan's scherzo focoso has never been recorded by a professional pianist. Anders Raden's electronic recording, linked, is the only benchmark that song has. I've found two articles claiming pianists attempted the song at concerts, but no recordings of said concerts exist. So when that video of the scherzo appeared, it was the first-ever recorded performance of that song. It has since been followed up by several other Youtube users (two more that I can easily find, including this interpretation which is entirely different from the others I've heard). And I'm extremely giddy about the fact that, thanks to Youtube, this obscure, bizarre, wonderful piece is finally finding people willing to give it a play. Simply extraordinary how the Internet is capable of giving attention to a man's work that's 150 years old. Makes me feel good about life.

And if you're a fan of these videos, I can assure you there's more to Alkan's work than just this. I'm in love with Gibbons' performance of Alkan's solo concerto, so named because the ambition was to make the piano sound like an entire orchestra. That's not on Youtube, but Hamelin's performance is. Gibbons' recording can be found on this disc, which is a remarkable collection of pieces that constantly surprises. The opening to his Overture sounds remarkably like certain sounds you find in metal. But it takes that one sound and brings it in a direction metal wouldn't ever think to go. Partly it's a blessing that his music is so ignored, because — excepting certain pieces by his contemporaries — he creates a library of sounds that haven't been immediately lifted by any other composers or musicians.
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:57 PM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

Between this and the Mompou post, Mefi is really giving my credit card a workout. Thanks, Rory M.
posted by rory at 3:18 PM on July 29, 2010

And I'm still hunting through Youtube looking for particular pieces that catch my eye — this movement from his solo concerto is another personal favorite.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:21 PM on July 29, 2010

I'm just going to go chop off a few fingers. I wasn't really using them, apparently.
posted by malocchio at 3:40 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

So, cocaine and piano do mix.

Pretty awesome stuff, BTW. Thanks for the links.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:10 PM on July 29, 2010

Reminds me of this 2008 post on Xenakis's Evryali, a piece designed to be so complex that it was physically impossible for humans to play in its entirety. The original post linked to an awesome scroller interface that followed along an MP3 of the jangling piano rhythms. Instead of using regular sheet music, it charted the notes in a striking graphical format that showed the tangential melodies splaying off like abstract art.

Unfortunately the owner of the site took down the graph scroller shortly thereafter, and when I emailed him gushing about it and asking if he'd restore it, he kinda brushed me off. I'd love to see it again some day, it was quite the audio-visual experience. You can at least listen to the version the scroller was based on here.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:14 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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