Alkan: Organ Works, Volume 1
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Charles–Valentin Alkan: Organ Works, Volume One

Catalogue Number: TOCC0030
EAN: 5060113440303
Release Date: 2 May 2005
Duration: 76:17

Organ of Blackburn Cathedral

Benedictus, Op. 54
12 Études pour les Pieds seulement, Nos. 1–6
11 Grands Préludes et 1 Transcription du Messie de Handel, Op. 66

Kevin Bowyer, organ

In the last three decades the staggeringly original piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88) has emerged from the darkness that had surrounded it over the past century and now it features regularly in the repertoire of some of today’s best young pianists. But Alkan’s organ music – no less powerful and imaginative – has yet to become known, even to a specialist public. This is the first of three CDs presenting all of Alkan’s unrecorded music for organ.

Booklet texts   (PDF)

Track Listing, MP3 Downloads and Streaming Samples

Track No. Track Title / Details Duration Sample Add to Cart
1 Benedictus, Op. 54 (1859)

Charles-Valentin Alkan, composer
Kevin Bowyer, organ

(first recording)
8:55 play
2-7 12 Études pour les Pieds seulement, Nos. 1–6 (c. 1869)

Charles-Valentin Alkan, composer
Kevin Bowyer, organ

(first recording)
2 No. 1, Moderato, C minor 1:29 play
3 No. 2, Adagio, C major 3:23 play
4 No. 3, Moderato, A minor 2:33 play
5 No. 4, Moderato, E flat 2:45 play
6 No. 5, Moderato, A minor 2:46 play
7 No. 6, Adagio, C sharp minor 5:12 play
8-19 11 Grands Préludes et 1 Transcription du Messie de Handel, Op. 66 (1859)

Charles-Valentin Alkan, composer
Kevin Bowyer, organ

(first recording)
8 No. 1, Allegro, F major 1:25 play
9 No. 2, Allegro moderato, D minor 2:17 play
10 No. 3, Andantino, B flat 4:06 play
11 No. 4, Moderatamente, G minor 4:26 play
12 No. 5, Quasi Adagio, E flat 4:45 play
13 No. 6, Andantino, C minor 4:36 play
14 No. 7, Andante, ‘Alla giudesca’, A flat 3:38 play
15 No. 8, Tempo giusto, F minor 5:05 play
16 No. 9, Langsam, D flat 6:52 play
17 No. 10, Scherzando, B flat minor 4:19 play
18 No. 11, Lento, F sharp major 3:24 play
19 Handel, Messiah, transcr. Alkan: Recitative ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart’ and Arioso ‘Behold, and see’ 4:21 play


Charles Valentin-Alkan

Charles-Valentin Alkan, composer

Kevin Bowyer

Kevin Bowyer, organ


… flawless technique and missionary commitment …

Alistair Hinton Music & Vision 29th June 2008

Everyone who has enjoyed volume I of Kevin Bowyer’s intégrale of Alkan’s organ works will need no persuasion from me to acquire this second volume – indeed they will probably have it already. For those who do not know this music, Nicholas King’s review (above) of Kevin Bowyer’s recital at City of London School, which included a number of pieces from this disc, will doubtless have excited their curiosity. But like volume I, this recording is not just for the curious; it reveals a major and little–appreciated dimension of Alkan’s genius, and also places these works as vital ‘missing links’ in the French organ tradition. The splendid organ of Blackburn Cathedral enables Bowyer to display these works to their maximum advantage.

The disc begins with the enigmatic ‘Pro organo’, an album leaf of about 1850 which may be an entity in its own right, or (since it is headed by the word ‘Praeludium’) the precursor to a suite which was never (?) elaborated. This little piece is like a glass of clear water, compared to the complexities and turbidity of much of what follows.

The present writer candidly admits that, despite the excellent performances, the Six Preludes ‘pour les pieds seulement’ (nos. 7-12, the first six being on volume 1) have, to him, the least to offer, certainly on disc -when seen live the acrobatics of the performer are a wonder to behold, whatever one’s opinion of the music. I am inclined to agree with Ronald Smith that a ‘rather savage’ joke may underlie these pieces, which demand miracles of execution to somewhat limited total musical effect. We may marvel at no 12, a chaconne with 40 variations– we will wonder how the performer does not get his feet permanently entangled in the crossings in no. 9 – we will certainly be engaged by many remarkable moments of tone-colour and contrast -but we won’t perhaps feel any strong urge to listen to any of them again..

But the bulk of the disc is taken up with the ‘11 pieces in religious style and a transcription from Handel’s Messiah’, op. 72, which are a very different matter. The variety, colour and different perspectives of these pieces belie any blandness which the title of the collection suggests, and constitute an exploration of an untrodden musical world, which has been rarely since revisited. Having now heard some of these pieces live twice (at Nicholas King’s recital reviewed in Bulletin 76 and at Bowyer’s recital reviewed above) and listened carefully to this new recording, I find them consistently engaging and displaying new facets. What an astounding contrast, for example, between the steamroller course of no.10 and the fractured progress and ultimate collapse of no. 11, the longest of the set! We badly need after this disturbing piece of musical psychosis, the further glass of water provided by the simple transcription from the Messiah.

Bowyer is performing great services to Alkan and to the organ repertoire as a whole through this series and, like volume I (and doubtless the forthcoming volume III), this recording is a must.

Bulletin No. 77 Alkan Society December 2007

works of stature and originality. […] Kevin Bowyer is a fine advocate for this music. […] My sense is that excellence in documentation is another strategic aim for this label and rightly so at “full price”. There is a very detailed and interesting essay on the music by Malcolm MacDonald and a likeable note about the artist. […] a strong recommendation for this disc.

Patrick C. Waller MusicWeb International November 2005

French Jews were given full civil rights in 1791, so while Alkan’s grandparents, the Morhanges, who had moved to Paris in 1780, named their son Alkan Morhange, he in turn was allowed by 1813 to use French Christian names to name his son, Charles-Valentin who adopted Alkan as his surname. Young, precocious and prodigiously talented, Alkan (1813-88) soon became well-known as a pianist, although the first recital he gave was as a violinist.

Great friend and neighbour of Chopin, with whom he shared recitals and pupils, teacher of Nadia Boulanger’s father, Alkan moved in the highest Parisian circles. Liszt had enormous respect for his playing, though Alkan’s temperament was more akin to the introvert Chopin than the extrovert Liszt.

The shy sensitive young man in the portrait on the cover of Volume 1 of this series is now replaced by an older man with an impish look for Volume 2. Later, after Alkan retired from public life after Chopin’s death and his not being appointed to his teacher Zimmermann’s professorship at the Conservatoire he gradually brought an end to many friendships and got a reputation for serial misanthropy. He was a combination of opposites, very shy yet prickly and acerbic, the virtuoso pianist who often disliked performing in public, and is accurately described by William Alexander Eddie as a “conservative radical”.

This description applies to his music. Adventurous, passionate and solemn, sometimes all three, it has strong rhythms and a strict lack of rubato, and often makes use of the keyboard’s and pedal-board’s extremes. The works on this release is part of a projected three-volume collection of Alkan’s complete music for pedal-piano and organ. Alkan had two apartments, one above the other, so that his playing of his Erard grand connected to a thirty-note pedal-board would less disturb the neighbours.

The disc opens with Pro Organo, for manuals only; whether this was to be the first in a longer cycle or suite is not known, but it serves as an excellent introduction to this intriguing recording. It has the Alkan’s hallmarks of high and low contrasting passages.

Do not consider the ‘Studies for Pedals Alone’ as a mere academic exercise; the six included here are rich in real music and make an enjoyable and fascinating programme. Many are fiendishly difficult and make enormous demands on the player. Indeed, Alkan dedicated one his organ works in Volume 1 to his friend Lefébure-Wély, who was not famed for writing difficult pedal parts. I do hope that the extraordinary Bombardo-Carillon for four feet will appear in Volume 3. The final Étude, a Chaconne with forty variations in all of four minutes, is a microcosm of Alkan’s writing.

The major portion of the recital is the dozen religious pieces, the last a delightful arrangement of the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ from Handel’s “Messiah”. The eleven original pieces are full of invention, some paying homage to Bach, some looking far forward, and bear serious investigation. Alkan’s ideas about ‘Style Religieux’ range from the most optimistic and flourished to the devotional. Among them, the fourth, marked Assez doucement, has a remarkable affinity with “Cwm Rhondda” written many years later, and the eleventh, Dolcemente, is the most mysterious and adventurous of the cycle.

Alkan, the virtuoso composer, is extremely well served by Kevin Bowyer, the virtuoso organist. His pedal work is breathtaking and his registrations so well thought through and just right for the moment.

The CD comes with a thick booklet including the organ specification and most excellent notes by Malcolm MacDonald. In first-rate sound, the rich acoustic of Blackburn Cathedral has been captured without losing any of the details of either the music or its interpretation. The third and final volume is eagerly awaited; in the meantime, this issue, as with Volume 1, comes very highly recommended as an authoritative journey through Alkan’s organ music.

Peter Joelson Classical Source

For Bowyer’s stupendous artistry no less than for the revelatory program, this exceeds all praise – not merely Want List or Hall of Fame material but pre-eminently among the great recorded performances of our new century. […] don’t wait to grab this.

Adrian Corleonis Fanfare

If you have any spare Christmas cash do make this glorious disc a priority. The first in a promised series of three, it scores top marks in every department. […] Blackburn Cathedral’s magnificent Walker/Wood organ (superbly captured by sound engineer Lance Andrews) combined with Bowyer’s effortless artistry and Malcolm MacDonald’s masterful notes make this a must-have recommendation.

Malcolm Riley Gramophone

This is by no means Kevin Bowyer’s first foray into the murky world of Alkan’s organ music; in 1988 he recorded a revelatory disc of it for Nimbus (NI5089). Rumours that more were to follow came to nothing until now, when, with this release from Toccata Classics, he has again revealed that the enigmatic figure of Charles-Valentin Alkan has much to offer lovers of the organ. (The booklet note promises that at least a second volume is in the offing; let’s hope so). In using an instrument of which he is certainly very fond and which can make some decidedly un-organic sounds (I have to confess it took a few careful listens before I was convinced that there was not an actual orchestra lurking in the background at the start of the Benedictus), rather than the delectable – but oh-so-English-cathedraly – organ of Salisbury Cathedral featured on the Nimbus disc, Bowyer also gives an object-lesson in how effective registration control can illuminate even the most obscure musical detail.

Alkan’s fame, both in his own day as a performer and today as a composer, is centred on the piano; Malcolm MacDonald’s booklet note, crammed with fascinating detail and scholarly insight, points out that Alkan was ‘the only pianist in whose presence even Liszt felt nervous’. But MacDonald also draws attention to the little-known fact that Alkan gained the first prize in organ playing at the Paris Conservatoire in 1834 and ‘by all accounts his organ technique was as remarkable as his command of the piano’. That’s quite a challenge for Bowyer, but both his organ technique and his powerful intellectual grasp of the musical arguments ensure that these performances probably get remarkably close to the effect Alkan himself would have achieved. Even the peculiar transcription of a recitative and aria from Messiah seems almost convincing, although even Bowyer can’t explain Alkan’s purpose in closing his Op. 66 in such a strange manner.

The extraordinary set of Études for feet alone exploits effects which on this recording are greatly enhanced by the physical layout of the Blackburn instrument and the engineer’s intelligent microphone placing. In No. 5, for example, with its thick pedal chords and jumps across the compass, we have the vivid impression of being truly surrounded by organ pipes and it takes a great leap of faith to believe that all this is being created by just one pair of feet. But when it comes to Kevin Bowyer we have to accept that he is, quite simply, a truly unique figure in the world of organ-playing.


Recordings of the piano music by Ronald Smith (now on APR) and by Marc-André Hamelin (on Hyperion) have done much to establish that Alkan was one of the most important composers for piano of the 19th century. Now comes a disc that suggests he should also be taken seriously by organists. Recipient of a Premier Prix in organ at the Paris Conservatoire, Alkan was held in high regard by Franck. That said, all of the pieces on this disc were written for pedal piano, with only the Etudes for pedals specifically stating organ as the preferred option.

This volume contains the first six Etudes. Written at a time when French writing for pedals was overwhelmingly cautious, these are visionary pieces. They are anything but dry, and amazement at their fleet-footed virtuosity rapidly gives way to admiration for the range of musical expression, especially in the broad unfolding of number six. The Benedictus and the Grands Préludes work marvellously well on organ. Kevin Bowyer finds drama and wit by turns through inventive registrations and a touch of the dash and daring that is the hallmark of the piano music.

BBC Music Magazine


Morgan Hayes Classical Source


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