They start so soft, so slow, so disdainfully detached that you wonder if we are in a music academy class for beginners. And yet they find here and there as soon as Prelude number 2 some vigor for short periods when the music dances to some popular tune that is ultimately swallowed up by the nonchalant slowness.
But he is best when he more or less unbinds the two hands and one goes astray in the high-pitched keys while the other roams slowly on the low-pitched keys and from time to time these two waves of fingers and notes come together, or closer though with two different tempos that are officially the same, maybe, but that are intrinsically different. Prelude number 3 is such a dual way across the keyboard, to and fro, up and down. But this game of playing one hand against the other is a style in this music. It creates a music that is more than impressionistic, a music that is cubist. That music would have been so well adapted to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, certainly more indeed than to Renoir's Déjeuner au bord de l'eau.
Prelude number 5 introduces another element of this style, of this music. The violence of it and both hands shoot the same way and make the storm of a ferocious mind torture the keys, the pedals and the keyboard to express that tempest under a skull and that violence comes back now and then in other preludes, like a measure here and there in Prelude number 6 in full contrast with a tremendous softness the rest of the time, just as if he regretted that violence of a short moment and tried to cover it up.
And at the same time Prelude number seven could be one of those dances that were the favorite pieces of the famous Moulin Rouge of Toulouse Lautrec: women, men and absinth, love and oblivion. We can see the legs going up and down, and the hand exploring under the table, or the dress, and yet at the end there is some kind of acceleration that makes it more feline than human.
Prelude number 8 starts as the voice of hell soaring from the deepest pit and high over it the small and delicate notes of a bird that tries to live its flying joy without being influenced by the somber, dark monster that lurks in the depth of this abyss. The spirit of god over the water in which Leviathan is looking for its next prey. There is something deeply Biblical in this music, and I mean Old Testament. The title is of course illuminating in darkness: "Au bord de la mort" (at the edge of death), note the rhyme or alliteration, and the devilish equilibrium on the divide between eternal non-life and maybe created life. God almighty is your master, and can you decide when and where you are going to go?
Prelude number 9 is a delicate and slightly trembling march of tin soldiers in the nursery that gets slightly shadier but not too much, just enough to maybe imagine a dark soul in the cupboard or under the bed. But Prelude number 10 brings the devil out of its box, the Jack out of his closet and a "danse macabre" starts on the chest of the poor child who was dreaming of some Never Never Land, of some Peter Pan and Tinkerbell before time, though it is Captain Hook and the Crocodile who are the masters of this dreamlike world.
Prelude number 11 brings some calmer circular dancing or is it some erring, ranting and raving in an unknown landscape? Prelude number 12 pacifies the rage of that flight and the mood becomes more serene, maybe anxious but not too frightful even if now and then there is a doubt especially in the last notes that do not know where they stand.
Prelude number 13 then can reopen the box of the peaceful detached notes going up and down like an exercise for a child but there is some nostalgia in this tune, this melody that plays on the half tones that modulate the minor into the major. But in the end a new variation of the same tune brings slightly more serenity and the sounds are made darker in hue and minor variations that question the possibility of some calm serendipity in this mysterious landscape that evades characterization, is closed to the eyes and dull to the ears. Just maybe take it as a lullaby and go to sleep with a slight fever to make you float over your bed wrapped up in your eiderdown.
Prelude number 14 is more vivacious and we go back to some turning whirling melody and tune that nevertheless slows down and then catches up again as if the music was following its own rhythm before suddenly taking some heavy power that starts hammering the notes into your skull as if the rolling movement was becoming more martial rocking left and right and this power dissolves into some renewed but slower spinning. The music is back to being a simple twirling top on a mahogany table.
Prelude number 15 is deliciously tender and soft with just some rushing notes that take the upper hand for a few measures, but not long. Let's go back to the soft sugary tone that yet gets denser to soften again. A daydream in the wind between oblivion and some parent that just issues one dark note to remind that child, that music to behave. Isn't that parent God himself?
Prelude number 16 is even much more tamed and literally on a leash, some notes pull slightly now and then but in vain. Let you walk the street with your master one step at a time and no erratic rush. And it is starting all over again with such a subtle change in tone that you seem to forget time may elapse during this strolling walk. Prelude number 17 stretches that impression even more, though a sudden gust of breeze, not wind, just a throatful of breath, ends in a gasp to go back again to peace and quiet. But an emergency is always there when you don't expect it with an echo of a Concerto by Beethoven, the Emperor I may think, that dissolves into some tempest-free calm.
Prelude number 18 becomes adult again and the grown-up man looks at the world, looks for something that might attract his eyes, or his ears. But the show is empty and the stage reveals nothing. Maybe over there in the distance the right hand is trying to mesmerize you with an alternative high-pitched phrase but it is only a phrase and the beholder goes back to his calm, though maybe some animation in him could reveal he misses something, he lacks something, he wants something but that is only...... And the high-pitched notes come back, the bird is singing again but the attraction seems to be finished and the beholder goes back to his secluded armchair with maybe one or two notes hanging in the air flattened by two deeply hammered notes.
Prelude number 19 is torn up by the same attraction to the top and the retaining pull down to the bottom. Prelude number 20 becomes impatient. Let's go out, let's be violent, let's crush this outside world. Violence up and down, up mostly down essentially, because it has to come down after arising slightly, and the violence is so terrorizing, and you can't go, you can't escape these deep notes that are just binds, ties and bonds holding you down to the earth, to your cell in some underground fortress.
Prelude number 21 then can give you the delicate lace of clearly detached notes on a vague and soft background. The tone on top is like a childish rigmarole that becomes softer and softer till it ends in immobility.
Prelude number 22 is the enjoyment of this immobility. The patient is in bed enjoying his dull senses and his erased emotions. There might be some vigor lower deeper in him but this violence that tries to come out is in the end refrained and put back in its blind cage. It could be some guilty pilgrimage, some purifying penitent's way and yet there is some torturing deep blackness in the hole over which the patient is hovering without falling into it, though he might be attracted by the fall but he just can't.
Prelude number 23 brings some light and delicateness in this dark landscape. A nice little clear dance of some ladies, they have to be ladies since they are so light, so dainty on their tiptoes. Would it not be wonderful to go along with this delicacy and charm. But it starts all over again and in vain in a way, getting shorter maybe, impatient, but no way: I won't go says the beholder.
Prelude number 24 reminds me of Chopin and one of his waltzes, the one about some little dog running after its tail. That was about the only person, man mind you, Alkan was attracted to but Chopin had another pussycat on his mind and that pussycat smoked the cigar and wore pants and leather boots. No luck, poor Alkan, Chopin had both sides of the coin in one person. And Alkan can always go back home to his refuge. ,
Prelude number 25 starts like a tolling bell and develops as such into a deadly fatal lethal funeral march. Who is Alkan burying? No one but himself of course in his reclusion and probably the Talmud that says horrible things in Leviticus about some desires that lurk and crawl deep in your mind or mental derangement, because it has to be derangement. So try to get salvation by translating the Talmud from Hebrew into a less divine language. But never mind, death will come soon and you will be at peace finally and for ever and ever.
In these preludes Alkan seems to depict his life torn between his desires and his fears and the latter win and push his desires away, in fact bury them deep underground which means under-mind in fact and that could mean craziness and insanity if there were no Talmud to translate, and he will burn it all just before dying showing how little he believed in fact and how much he expected some control of his inner storms from such a pointless activity. Luckily he had music and he left behind a monument to his crucified inner life.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU