The fearsomely difficult Etude No. 5 in F Major “Allegro Barbaro” by French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (a much-neglected composer, in my opinion), performed here by the wonderful British pianist (and renowned George Gershwin interpreter) Jack Gibbons:
I wasn’t exaggerating when I used the adjective “fearsome” to describe this piece – just to glance at the sheet music for this work would be enough to induce a nervous breakdown in a lesser performer, and as you can see from the way in which Gibbons’ hands turn into a blur as he performs the piece, it demands extraordinary technical abilities and endurance from the performer, especially given the short nature of the piece.
Here is a version with accompanying score:
From Ronald Smith’s “Alkan, The Man, The Music”:
The arresting title Allegro barbaro can give little idea of the fierce impact, even on twentieth-century ears, of Alkan’s fifth study with its harsh textures, pounding rhythms and jagged outlines. Whether or not Bartok heard Busoni play this electrifying octave study in the early 1900s there can be little doubt which Allegro barbaro is, at once, the more barbaric or the more disciplined. Although written and sounding in F major Alkan cancels every B flat, the piece remaining stubbornly on the white keys, its rondo structure etched out in a series of contrasted modes. Phrygian, Aeolian, and Dorian episodes, in turn, confront the Lydian subject, rousing it to ever increasing ferocity until with a final stampede of semiquavers it explodes into numbed silence.
I have always counted the Jack Gibbons recital I attended at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London nearly a decade ago (in which he focused exclusively on the music of George Gershwin) as one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and intimate performances that I have ever attended. His superb recording of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto reveals a wonderful command of phrasing and dynamics which, for obvious reasons, the Alkan Etude has no need for.
If you are not familiar with this pianist, I heartily recommend a visit to his website here.