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Sonate de Concert

Charles-Valentin Alkan – Sonate de Concert for Violoncello & Piano (1857)

Frankly, I’m excited to post my first classical record. I love classical music, especially that of the Romantic and Modern period. Like Debussy, Alkan is a composer who as a master pianist, writes challenging and intriguing pieces primarily for piano. Unlike Debussy, Alkan is vibrant with emotion as he has can turn from writing

a dramatically tongue-in-cheek funeral march for a parrot, to a social critique of war, to writing melodramatic oneiric solo piano pieces that would make John Brian feel a little uneasy.

Charles Valentin Alkan was born in France in 1813, and his circle of friends included Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Chopin. His stature as a master pianist was renown and exemplified by often playing with fellow composer, Franz Liszt. It is interesting to note that of the famous piano composers of the Romantic period (Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Schubert) Alkan is not among them although he was certainly as talented as any of his peers. My deduction is that unlike the other composers of the period Alkan was unafraid to write pieces that criticized war (Le Tambour Bat Aux Champs) and that delved into the deepest recesses of the human subconscious (before Dostoevsky was writing, mind you!) in order to expose the dark psychology of the troubled mind. In other words, the man was ahead of his time. At the ripe old age of 25, Alkan took leave from social life and retired to the countryside where he would continue to compose, not performing again until right before his death in 1888.


His Sonate de Concert is not his most beautiful, nor is it his most provocative piece, but it contains a level of refinement, a level of play, a myriad of emotions that is so masterfully crafted. I will be the first to admit that the ‘cello pieces are not the most dynamic or challenging, but the way it engages in a fantastic dialogue with the incredibly challenging piano is absolutely stunning. To me, this is less of a sonata, but rather a precursor to the idea of a jazz duet as both instruments do not directly follow one another, but rather converse in a way that seems improvisational. I wish I could read music, as I understand that Alkan often left his scores rather vague and in fact did encourage improvisation of his pieces. I’m not aware if this piece is one of those such cases, but it does in fact remind me a little of McCoy Tyner and Coltrane duking it out on “My Favorite Things.”

Frankly, this is the year 2010 and we do not listen to music in the same way that audiences were listen to music in 1857 or 1961 (“My Favorite Things”). We have been trained to listen to listen to different harmonies and melodies, to notice different elements of instrumentation, to react to music differently than fifty or a hundred and fifty years ago. That being said, upon first listen, upon second listen, you may just be in love with the sounds you are hearing, the warm buzz of the cello and the grandiose leaping piano, but listen to the conversation between the instruments and don’t be afraid to add your own element into the dialogue.
Categories: 1857, classical, france
  1. April 30, 2010 at 4:59 pm
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