Le chemin de fer (The Railroad), étude, Op. 27
"He has the finest technique," Liszt said, "but prefers the life of a recluse." Happy 200th to the pianist and composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, born this day in 1813.
One of the great virtuosi of Paris in the 1830s and 1840s along with Liszt and Chopin, Alkan remains somewhat divisive as a composer: depending on whom one asks, his music is full either of bold, novel ideas or vulgar displays of virtuosity. The truth, as usual, may be somewhere in the middle.
But he was certainly an ambitious and thoughtful artist: he was the first to deliberately incorporate Jewish melody into art music, reflecting his own heritage; and where Chopin used the piano as a means for creating new harmonic landscapes and extending the musical language and emotional scope available to it, Alkan was more obsessed with transcending the inherent technical limitations of his instrument, sticking to traditional forms and conventions if sometimes exaggerating them. Chopin and Alkan were more friends than competitors, and often went to dinner and the theater together.