Hamelin, the master pianist

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Hamelin, the master pianist

Post by Ricordanza » Fri Apr 03, 2015 8:14 pm

If I were asked to identify a theme for Marc-André Hamelin’s recital on Tuesday night, March 31, I’d have to assign a different theme to each half. The first half demonstrated the possibilities of the piano, while the second half illustrated the possibilities of interpretation.

Before he began the program, Hamelin, clearly overcome with emotion, announced that he was dedicating the recital to the memory of his recently departed teacher, Harvey Wedeen.

Those readers familiar with Hamelin are aware that, while he may have a handful of peers, none surpasses him in the ability to demonstrate the possibilities of the piano. Nevertheless, he began the program in a modest way with John Field’s Andante Inédit (novel or original). Field is sometimes referred to as the Irish Chopin, and indeed, his Nocturnes and related works provided models for the piano works by Chopin which expanded the possibilities of that instrument. Hamelin’s rendition of this work was gracious and poetic.

Debussy was another composer who expanded the limits of the piano, and Hamelin brought his incredible touch to three pieces from Images, Book II. The third of these pieces, Poissons d’or (Goldfish) received a particularly scintillating performance.

As a throwback to the composer-pianists of the 19th Century (in method but not in musical style), when Hamelin finds the need to go beyond the existing repertoire for a vehicle to display the possibilities of the piano, he creates his own works to do just that. Fortunately for Tuesday night’s audience, Hamelin included not just one, but two of his own compositions.

The first piece, a 2014 composition entitled Pavane Variée, is essentially a set of variations on a theme by the French Renaissance composer Thoinot Arbeau. It starts politely enough, befitting its Renaissance origins, but soon explores some decidedly contemporary musical territory, as well as pushing the envelope of piano technique. I could quibble about over-pedaling. Sometimes, the pedal was held to produce a certain effect or underline an uneasy dissonance, but in some passages, it just muddied the music. But overall, it was a piece of intriguing complexity, expertly performed. It certainly whet my appetite to hear the work again.

The second piece, composed in 2011, has been heard once before in Philadelphia, as an encore at Hamelin’s recital almost exactly three years ago (March 29, 2012). It is a set of variations on a theme of Paganini, the same famous theme that had been the subject of variations by Rachmaninoff and Brahms and Paganini himself in his 24th Caprice for solo violin. If I had an editor, he or she would probably require that I provide a fresh description of the work and the performance. But I don’t have an editor, so, looking back at what I wrote in 2012, I’ll just plagiarize myself and offer my impressions from that performance:

“Hamelin then launched into this work, playing the familiar theme with a slightly off-kilter harmony and following that with some of the most imaginative and fascinating variations I have ever heard of any theme. At times, he incorporated jazz elements, venturesome harmonies, some modern sounding sound clusters, touches of humor, and brilliant pianistic flourishes (of course). One variation was a type of “PDQ Bach” creation, with snippets of Beethoven and other classical and popular works. One variation worked in another Paganini tune, La Campanella. And one variation contained an introduction very much like Rachmaninoff’s 18th variation, making us think that we would then hear the famous lyrical inversion, but we heard another lyrical variation instead. After a brilliant conclusion, the audience reacted wildly. This was Hamelin, the composer-pianist, at his absolute best.”

For the second half of the program, Hamelin presented the Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 by Schubert the Mystic. Yes, I’m referring to Franz Schubert, the Viennese master whose work served as a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. That’s not a term we usually apply to this composer, but the interpretation we heard, especially in the first movement, could only be described as mystical. Granted, there are mysterious elements in this first movement, with the lyrical theme being interrupted by strange rumblings in the bass, but most pianists present this final sonata by Schubert in a more straightforward way. Hamelin’s approach was decidedly, almost radically different, with varying rhythm (generally, slow and slower) resulting in a lengthy and almost spiritual account of this already expansive movement. The lack of rhythmic momentum usually annoys me, but as the performance developed, I began to be persuaded by the creativity and originality of Hamelin’s approach. The real slow movement, the second, was beautifully rendered, and the lively third and bright fourth movements were superbly played. At the end of the piece, the ovation showed that I was not alone in my admiration for Hamelin’s unique interpretation of Schubert’s final piano masterpiece.

For an encore, Hamelin wisely avoided pianistic fireworks, turning instead to a gorgeous rendition of a Schubert Impromptu.

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