A Masterclass in Emulation: Alkan’s Piano Concerto for Solo Piano

Ryan Modafe

March 15, 2024

Charles-Valentin Alkan’s life was full of ups and downs, one of the great rollercoaster rides of history. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he was unsuccessful in maintaining his relevance and faded into history. Over the past few decades, he has received an uptick in well-deserved attention directed at his most groundbreaking compositional set, Douze Etudes dans les tons minors, published in 1857. This set of etudes seems to one-up or possibly respond to Franz Liszt’s set of 12 Transcendental Etudes

Liszt was the most famous pianist of his era by far. Playing his set of etudes is an already physically taxing and mentally draining endeavor. The etudes contain all forms of technique ranging from arpeggios ranging four octaves, rapid blind octaves, jumps the size of Mount Everest, and crippling multi-page tremolos, all while maintaining a soft and luscious pianistic touch in many cases. Few pianists have dared record the one-hour set of complete studies, let alone perform it live. It seems unimaginable to exceed the limits of the piano Liszt instated. However, Alkan did not care.

The flagship piece in the set, the Concerto for Solo Piano, defies all preconceived notions of the piano’s capabilities and seems to conjure an entirely different instrument. Typically, a piano concerto comprises of a piano and a symphonic orchestra, ranging from 30 - 200 players with 10+ instruments, all with significantly varying tonal quality and sound (violin, cello, flute, trumpet, trombone, etc.). In the Concerto for Solo Piano, Alkan combines all these moving voices, timbres, and tones and imposes them upon the piano. As a result, the piece has gained infamy in being among the most technically challenging pieces in all the piano repertoire. 

The piece in its entirety lasts about 50 minutes on average, making it a formidable test of mental endurance. The first movement alone is a blisteringly rapid transition from technique to technique, featuring pages of brisk blind octaves and alternating hand figures on top of the many double notes and runs. This movement is likely the pinnacle of the piece, lasting a whopping 30 minutes and spanning over 70 pages of music. Interestingly, Alkan employs many unorthodox and contrasting styles in the third movement. It features a theme originating from Jewish folklore, possibly an homage to his Jewish roots. A bold motif also echoes through the piece, like a sinister undertone, using a trill and upper turn fused into a single gesture. It almost hypnotizes the listener, acting as a masterful transition to raging climaxes, easily rivaling the sound of full symphonic orchestras. 

However, the peak of its difficulties comes after the technical aspects. To truly evoke the emotions and character Alkan desires from this piece, a pianist must transcend technical difficulties and place focus upon mimicking orchestral instruments, each of which Alkan indicates appropriately in his lengthy score. This feat has been achieved in a similar set of transcriptions by Liszt, which took all of Beethoven’s Symphonies and transposed them to piano. However, the added difficulty with Alkan’s piece is maintaining the “solo piano” voice above all others, even when every sound comes from the piano. Achieving such a task is reserved for only the very highest level of virtuosi pianists and makes such a piece unapproachable for the vast majority of professionals. Alkan’s ability to see past the bounds set by his predecessors and invent music with such great potential adds to the reputation that should definitively cement him among the greatest composers of all time.