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Archive for June, 2013

Marc-André Hamelin

Marc-André Hamlin enjoying a joke

Marc-André Hamlin enjoying a joke

Marc-André Hamelin has a sly sense of humor. I was rather disappointed when he made the relatively bland choice of Chopin’s Minute Waltz as his second encore in Chicago last week, that is, until the reprise, when he started refracting the music through the distorting prism of his imagination. Chopin’s elegant roulades were transformed into a whirl of crushed chords and mangled harmonies, as if Hamelin had fused with Eric Morecambe. Earlier in the recital, he had played his own variations on the famous Paganini caprice, which started out conventionally with a harmonic pungency reminiscent of Lutoslawski’s two-piano version but ended in self-parody. After a haunting variation, in which the melody was completely broken up into isolated fragments, he started making increasingly outrageous quotations: from Chopin’s Barcarolle, Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 109, snatches of Gershwin (?), Liszt’s La Campanella, and pounding chords from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (as played by Dudley Moore). He himself likened it, after the concert, to someone switching radio channels, perhaps a modern update of Charles Ives. It ended with a particularly soupy version of Rachmaninov’s famous inversion of the theme. I couldn’t help thinking that Hamelin came, not to praise Paganini’s overused theme, but to bury it once and for all under the sheer weight of musical clichés. Personally, I bet that it reappears, zombie-like, to torment us once again (not that this version wasn’t a lot of fun).

Hamelin seems to be someone completely at ease when performing. He has probably the most effortless facility of any pianist I have seen, with the possible exception of Arcadi Volodos, and an ability to transform the most complex textures into lucid poetry. When you follow his recordings with a piano score, he is scrupulously accurate to the minutest detail but unfailingly expressive. He started the recital with a ravishing account of Berg’s Piano Sonata, not perhaps the usual adjective for such troubled music, but I think the surface sheen of his playing can make the undercurrent of anxiety even more moving than in more overtly expressionist interpretations. He then exchanged the Viennese psychoanalyst’s couch for a Parisian salon, with two of Fauré’s most enchanting miniatures. The Barcarolle, No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 42, in particular, was a real find for me, with filigree passages of haunting sweetness.

He ended the first half with Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. This starts with irregularly pulsed chords in the right hand depicting the shimmer of moonlight on the water’s surface, while Ondine, the water sprite, swims below. Hamelin played these chords much faster than usual, allowing the left-hand melody, Ondine’s song, to flow more naturally than in most performances. He had no problem maintaining this speed, even as Ondine’s moonlight dance produces a cascade of waterfalls, before subsiding into rapt stillness. Hamelin also played with astonishing delicacy in the second movement, Le Gibet, with scarcely audible right-hand chords over the relentless tolling of the bell. He admitted afterwards that he takes risks with dynamics, feeling that it helps draw the audience into the music. On the whole, I agree, although I think that Le Gibet was perhaps too withdrawn, soporific rather than hypnotic. But the final Scarbo was suitably demonic and fiery.

The Chicago management had requested that Hamelin replace two Rachmaninov Preludes in the second half with two more examples of Gallic water music, Debussy’s Reflets Dans L’Eau and Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau, to better conform to the CSO Rivers Festival, of which this recital formed a rather tenuous part. It gave him a chance to show off yet more ravishing sonorities, although it made the concluding Rachmaninov 2nd Sonata seem a little out of place. It started with a sudden jolt of energy that was quite startling after the preceding reveries. This is more conventional virtuoso music, by turns muscular and lyrical, but Hamelin seemed to have no problem switching to the more extrovert style it required.

Hamelin’s love of softer dynamics and beguiling sonorities is one of his most attractive characteristics, unusual in such a dazzling virtuoso. If anything, he seems to use his enviable facility to disguise the difficulty of the music rather than draw attention to it, preferring to seduce us with beauty of sound rather than narcissistic note-spinning. Even the encore I mentioned at the start seemed designed to subvert the virtuoso stereotype rather than celebrate it. He probably didn’t win many friends amongst struggling pianists by admitting that he finds learning music fairly easy, but he knows how to win over audiences without meretricious display so I hope he’s back soon.

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