Marc-André Hamelin Dazzles in Traditional Music, Premieres and His Own Work

United StatesUnited States Berg, Liszt, Hamelin: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 2.11.2011 (HS)

A recital by the redoubtable French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin would be compelling enough if he just played the standard and modern repertoire for which he is renowned. When the program includes some of his own quirky, dazzling and well-crafted music, one a world premiere and another a North American premiere, it’s even more imperative to beat a path to it.

For the first half of his recital Wednesday at Herbst Hall, his seventh appearance for this organization in eight years, Hamelin suspended time in a remarkably controlled and evanescent performance of Berg’s Piano Sonata, Opus 1, followed by a Liszt Piano Sonata in B Minor of extraordinary precision and depth of expression. Both these works articulate, each in its own way, the furthest reaches of Romanticism – Berg pushing the boundaries of harmonic freedom while maintaining classical sonata form, Liszt expanding the formal possibilities along with ever-increasing technical demands. Each piece, also, ends in quiet resignation.

Both are also one-movement works, but in very different ways. Berg intended to expand his terse 5-minute piece into a traditional three-movement sonata but found himself unable to add onto it. So he and his teacher, Schoenberg, decided to consider the piece complete as it was. It certainly explores a wide range of dynamics and colors in a short span, and Hamelin rendered them meticulously, and movingly.

Liszt, on the other hand, suggests a traditional three-movement form with an overall shape of fast-slow-fast. A slow study of descending scales bookends the work, and provided the thematic nucleus. Working out this theme, and a couple of contrasting ones, is the meat for the form to chew on. And Hamelin took huge bites out of the sonic possibilities, playing the slow opening scales (each one slightly different than the preceding one, by the way) with aching hesitation, the repeated notes around them sounding as if they were coming from somewhere far away. It was haunting, both in the first iteration and even more so at the end. In between, the grand, expansive passages in the faster sections, with their double octaves flying by fast like blinking strobe lights, exploded with vigor, and the sweet contrasting lyrical melody sang with crystalline precision.

I heard Hamelin play both of these works in a recital at the Aspen Music Festival earlier this year. It was impressive then, phenomenal this time. Which made what happened at the end of the Liszt all the more regrettable. Sometimes at a classical concert, a jerk starts clapping as soon as the piece hits the last note, and half the audience usually follows suit, shortening the breathless moment. Kudos to this audience, which ignored the idiot who started applauding just as Hamelin caressed the last haunting note. The clapper applauded alone for about 10 seconds while Hamelin’s hands hovered over the keyboard, and then stopped. A brief, welcome moment of silence ensued before the hands came away from the piano and the hands in the audience started an enthusiastic ovation.

For the second half, Hamelin opened with Theme and Variations (Cathy’s Variations), a piece he wrote for his fiancée, Cathy Fuller, in 2007. Getting its first performance on this program, it revealed Hamelin as a composer who can channel a sentimental side into gorgeous music without devolving into anything saccharine. The music is charming, clearly coming from the heart, and except for an extended quotation from Beethoven’sSonata in E Major, Opus 109, contains no other references à la Robert and Clara Schumann. If anything, the style weds jazz harmonies with Impressionist techniques to create a hazy glow.

Variations on a Theme of Paganini takes up the same tune from the violin Caprice No. 24 that Rachmaninov used for his famous rhapsody. Here Hamelin reveals a naughty sense of humor that injects pungent dissonances and, like a jazz improvisor, plucks familiar tunes out of the air that fit with the proceedings. Thus, we hear snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and, yes, another Paganini caprice, as the variations fly past. Filled with passages of technical brilliance, it’s a breathtaking ten minutes that can make music lovers laugh out loud – and shake their heads in awe.

The program finished with three études from his set of 12, written over 23 years and only recently completed and recorded. The first, No. 8—Erlkönig, goes back to the original Goethe poem for its rhythmic style and overall shape, with no musical allusions at all to the famous Schubert song. It has an unsettling feel, a sort of rumble that threatens more than it frightens, which makes it all the more powerful. No. 11—Minuetto starts off innocently enough, with a lilting tune in minuet style that keeps pushing into heavier climaxes, only to recede into the original, innocent theme. No. 12—Prélude and Fugue, which dates from 1986, uses a fugue theme that is more a series of offhanded gestures than a tune, but when everything starts piling up contrapuntally it coalesces into a grand statement, and it ended the evening on a triumphant note.

For an encore, Hamelin offered another piano prélude, this one by Leonid Sabaneyev, a pre-Soviet Russian composer who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and founded the Moscow Institute of Musicology. Introducing the piece, Hamelin said that he often combs through “the barrel scrapings” of unknown composers in search of a gem worth performing. It proved to be a lovely, lyrical utterance, just the thing to contrast with the excitement of that final fugue.

Harvey Steiman