Last Thursday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the young British pianist Jack Gibbons gave what was billed as the first London performance of Alkan's complete Douze Etudes dans les tons mineurs, published in 1857. The recital lasted nearly three hours, including two intervals. As Gibbons said in his brief introductions, to call Alkan's pieces "studies" is irrelevant - or, rather, superfluous - because technical challenges are their essence.
But four of the pieces are given the collective title of Symphony, including a funeral march as a slow movement of numbing monotony and a "Minuet" as a relentless scherzo, and three more make up a Concerto, in which the pianist represents both soloist and orchestra. This is even more daunting, with a huge Allegro to start, a sombre slow movement and an exotic finale with spectacularly athletic textures involving jumps, crossed hands, trills and repeated chords, all at once. The 11th Study is a set of 25 variations, called Le Festin d'Esope, based on an original theme close to "Ten green bottles hanging on the wall", each variation suggesting a beast in one of Aesop's fables. The most outlandish is a hunt with braying horns and hounds yelping, all out of kilter.
Jack Gibbons has a way with an audience (the recital was being recorded by Classic FM) and addressed himself to his herculean labours with becoming modesty and a minimum of fuss. But he hardly did more than play the swarms of notes efficiently.
Occasionally there was a bit of clouding from the pedal, and some of the very effective, almost Mendelssohnian filigree in the finale of the Concerto was unclear, although Alkan pitches it so high in the treble it's hard to tell what the notes are meant to be. Otherwise, he played with a light, relaxed touch - how else could his muscles not seize up? If that was a virtue, the persistently thin piano sound was not.
How much room for interpretation there remains in this ruthlessly metrical, note-filled music is open to question. It was good to have two shorter pieces, La Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer and En Songe, interpolated towards the end, like a poetic interlude.
Jack Gibbons played them very delicately and simply. Their weirdly bleak quality might suggest we give Alkan credit for being an anti-sentimentalist, although the loud chord to end the second piece just seemed childish. A clever child might have tried to indulge the mad, megalomaniac fantasy of ingenious mechanics that Alkan, as a brilliantly gifted adult, realised in the longer pieces. But he wasn't childlike in Schumann's sense, because his music had no soul.