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Archive for November, 2010

Marc-André Hamelin

Marc-Andre HamelinMarc-André Hamelin, who was an unlikely (though prestigious) replacement for an injured Murray Perahia at Chicago’s Symphony Center, is one of a remarkable breed of super-virtuosi to first make their mark in the eighties and nineties. Arcadi Volodos and Stephen Hough are two other names that come to mind. What marks them out is not necessarily their technique; there seems to be a never-ending supply of young Russian pianists able to produce high voltage recordings of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux, for example. It is rather their willingness to explore neglected corners of the repertoire, often music of prodigious difficulty that other pianists refuse to play either because of an over-refined sensibility or insufficient skill. The super-virtuosi embrace the showmanship implicit in such music, performing high-wire circus acts in the concert hall with improbable bravura. Hough is not too proud to dazzle with Moskowski party pieces, Volodos has produced his own outrageously inventive arrangements of Mozart’s Turkish rondo, and Hamelin delights in the excesses of Godowsky’s Chopin étude arrangements, and has even topped them with a few of his own.Nevertheless, they all combine their virtuosity with a natural musicality that silences any charges of vulgarity.

Hamelin seemed anxious to demonstrate his more serious credentials today, looking dapper in a dark suit and open-necked shirt but also very serious. He allowed himself the ghost of a smile by the end of the first half and a broader grin by the end, but not while playing Haydn and Mozart. The Haydn F-minor Variations is one of his finest works, and Hamelin caught its elegiac tone well, although I found the numerous little hesitations in the opening theme overly self-conscious. He set a brisk pace at the start of Mozart’s A-minor Sonata, K-310, his fluid fingerwork throughout ensuring there was no sense of rush. The slow movement, which is one of the finest in all of Mozart’s sonatas, was played with poise and grace. Hamelin’s sound is always refined but, compared to András Schiff a couple of weeks ago, I think his textures are a little too homogeneous. Schiff is a master at creating a multitude of sonic layers, precisely grading the volume and tone of each so that inner voices can emerge to complement the whole. He clearly spends a lot of time dissecting, analyzing, and reassembling every aspect of the music. I suspect that Hamelin is more of a “sleep-walker,” when it come to the classical repertoire anyway. His own piano arrangements show that he has plenty of musical intelligence, but I think he depends on an innate musicality in Haydn and Mozart rather than analytical skill. The results were sometimes a little muddy, with well projected main themes but a rather unfocused accompaniment.

He ended the first half with Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, part of his Années de Pélerinage, where the composer was inspired by Italian popular song rather than religious devotion. Gondoliera, which opens the piece, is surely one of the most evocative depictions of the floating city, a lilting song on a gently rocking bass. In Hamelin’s performance, the bass was completely submerged, its offbeat emphases impossible to discern, so this gondolier was evidently grounded. But the music was still mesmerizing, the filigree ornamentation played with extraordinary delicacy, and the hushed final chords dissolving into spellbinding silence. The final Tarantella allowed Hamelin to let his fingers loose at last, producing a whirl of repeated notes and dancing chords that brought cheers and a standing ovation before the interval.

The final piece in the concert was Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano. In 1977, while a student in London, I attended the first ever meeting of the Alkan Society in the Waterloo Room in the Festival Hall. I have just discovered that the report of the original meeting is available on the web, scanned from the typewritten original (long before word processors had even been thought of), so I gather that I was one of 22 ‘interested persons.’ I remember that Ronald Smith, a pioneering champion of Alkan’s music, gave a talk, illustrated on a Steinway upright that he didn’t think could cope with the 16 notes a second that Alkan sometimes demanded. I attended one of Ronald Smith’s subsequent recitals, but I presume I never became a fully paid up member of the society (which cost £2).

The truth is that, although in general I love quirky music and admire originality, I often find Alkan’s music a little dry and too spare in texture. The symphony is a good example. Apart from the central section of the minuet, which is pure Schubert, the melodic inspiration is not of the standard of his romantic contemporaries. The music does, however, have an inexorable drive that keeps you gripped from beginning to end, particularly when played with the brio that Hamelin brings to it. It must require the most phenomenal stamina. Most pianists would wilt after a couple of pages of the relentless leaping left-hand octaves that characterize much of the symphony’s finale, but Hamelin, evidently as fit as a decathlete, barely broke a sweat as he brought the music to a thundering conclusion.

As an encore, Hamelin played a Godowsky encore. But this was languorous, perfumed, almost sultry music, not another finger-crunching exercise, a sensual bath after all that speed and power. The super-virtuosi can do it all.

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