Marc-Andre Hamelin at New York’s Zankel Hall

Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Fauré, Liszt : Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Zankel Hall, New York, 11.5.2011 (BH)

Haydn : Sonata in E Minor Hob. XVI:34 (1784)
: Carnaval, op. 9 (1834-1835)
: Passacaglia from 4 Studies on Basic Rows (1935-1936)
: Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 63 (1894)
: Réminiscences de Norma (1841)

At this point in his career, Marc-André Hamelin can pretty much play whatever he pleases, but unlike other pianists he often chooses the road less traveled, almost always to our benefit. In this recital at Zankel Hall, the most familiar item on the menu was Schumann’s daunting Carnaval, done by many pianists but here played with the kind of finesse and insight one rarely experiences. Particularly striking was the simplicity and clarity of “Eusebius,” each phrase etched against an utterly silent audience, and an extraordinarily colorful “Papillons.” But I would wager each of the 21 snapshots had its adherents, and as the substantial first-half closer, Hamelin’s artistry brought many in the audience to their feet. The opener was no less impressive: Haydn’s Sonata in E Minor, given the same precision that has become one of the pianist’s trademarks. His light, fleet approach – with some gentle humor, especially in the second movement – made a nimble beginning to the evening.

After intermission came Stefan Wolpe’s knotty Passacaglia from 4 Studies on Basic Rows, which in twelve minutes seemed to tell a story other composers might relate in ten times this length. A dense, 12-tone study that only grows more dazzling as it proceeds, it gave Hamelin the opportunity to show his coolness and logic, while avoiding any impression of sterility. After a burst of applause, he plunged immediately into Fauré’s Nocturne in D-flat Major – serene, rapturous and seldom encountered – as tender as the Wolpe was implacable, with Hamelin luxuriating in the composer’s gauzy lyricism.

And then, after a mere single bow (Hamelin likes to “get down to business”) he launched Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma with an almost nonchalant approach to its formidable demands. Near the end, as the melodic line struggles to emerge, while the pianist’s right hand is criss-crossing the keyboard, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Hamelin’s astounding technique. As the final chords thundered through the hall, one could sense the cheers already beginning to form. After several trips backstage and showing no signs of fatigue, he returned to describe his first encounter with Busoni’s Elegy No. 4: “I thought it was Chinese,” even though it soon shows its British folksong roots (the melody familiar to many from “What Child is This?”).

But then came perhaps the evening’s most astonishing moment. After gently musing that “I haven’t played this piece in public in over 15 years,” Hamelin gave a riveting version of “Ondine” from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. If this is what “being rusty” means, Hamelin’s definition is vastly different from that of the rest of us.

Bruce Hodges