The French pianist and composer Charles-Valentin Alkan never figures in Marcel Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time. Indeed, in the context of those seven volumes, it is unlikely that either Alkan himself or any mention of him would be encountered along either “the way by Swann’s” (Du côté chez Swann) or “the Guermantes Way” (Le Côté de Guermantes). While Alkan was a highly accomplished composer, he also spent the better part of his life as a recluse, perhaps to get away from all of those character types that Proust documented so well.
Nevertheless, this is the centennial year of Alkan’s birth. So it seemed appropriate for pianist William Wellborn to use today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral as an opportunity to introduce his audience to “the way by Alkan’s.” As I recently wrote about this centennial occasion, Alkan’s talent as a composer led to some of the most difficult works in the nineteenth-century repertoire, garnering him a reputation of at least notoriety, if not fame. However, Alkan was also a skilled miniaturist, as may be seen in the 48 short pieces of his Opus 63, which he collected under the title Esquisses (sketches).
Wellborn chose to introduce his audience to this somewhat more accessible side of Alkan’s compositional talents. He selected seven of these pieces, describing the character of each in some brief prefatory remarks. Each of his selections was almost haiku-like in its brevity, not so much describing an image as capturing a single significant aspect of that image. In a manner skirting the border between the literal and the figurative, this was music of essences; and Wellborn effectively conveyed each essential quality in the brief duration allotted to it.
To conclude the Noontime Concerts™ French Music Festival, Wellborn flanked these engaging rarities with two much more familiar offerings. He began his recital with the work of a later composer also concerned with the essence of visual description through music. That composer was Claude Debussy; and for Wellborn’s selection the source of images was, appropriately enough, the first book of the collection Debussy called Images.
The three pieces in this book are significantly more extended than Alkan’s “sketches.” One might say that they have been drawn with much more detail, and Wellborn performed each of them with that attentiveness to the high degree of detail that Debussy summoned. These pieces were thus distinguished by their departure from “the way by Alkan’s,” providing a program of stimulating contrasts.
At the other end we had the abstraction of Maurice Ravel’s sonatine, which was composed in the same year (1905) as those three Images compositions. While the sonatine was structured around traditional forms, Wellborn executed it with a strong sense of those qualities that can make Ravel so descriptive in other settings, particularly his rich rhetoric of sonorities and his distinctive approach to phrasing. This selection set Ravel apart from Debussy as much as it set him apart from Alkan, thus continuing that theme of stimulating contrasts that motivated the rest of the program.
Those of us on audience side may now be taking leave of France, but the month’s arrangements of programs certainly made this year’s visit a memorable one.