Thrilling Virtuosity from Marc-André Hamelin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Haydn, Stockhausen, Villa-Lobos, Liszt: Marc-André Hamelin (piano) Wigmore Hall, London 6.2.2012 (RB)

Haydn: Piano sonata in E minor HXVI:  34 (1784)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück IX (1961)
Villa-Lobos: Rudepoema
Liszt: Piano sonata in B minor

Marc-André Hamelin’s star is currently in the ascendant; he has released a number of award winning CDs and is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the world’s leading virtuoso pianists.  This programme was fascinating in that the first half consisted of a trio of lesser-known rarely performed works while the second half consisted of one of the most famous pieces in the whole of the piano repertoire.

Hamelin began his recital with Haydn’s sonata in E minor which is the only sonata by this composer which opens with a ‘presto’ first movement.  He captured beautifully the uneasy mood fluctuations of the opening while his digital dexterity in the rapid passage work was breathtaking.  The ‘adagio’ slow movement was played with great charm and elegance and the ornamented line clearly and cleanly articulated.  In the finale, Hamelin captured the deadpan humour of the minor to major key transitions and the movement ended with sprightly abandon.

The avant-garde music of Karlheinz Stockhausen is something of an acquired taste and his Klavierstücke are extremely difficult to bring off in the concert hall (just getting the audience to listen to them is a feat in itself!)  Klavierstück IX is an abstract study in number sequences, dynamics and acoustic effects.  Stockhausen’s pieces need to be played with absolute conviction if they are to have any chance of success and it is to Hamelin’s credit that he gave the composer 100% commitment and concentration in this performance.  He adumbrated extraordinary spectral echo effects and created a compelling psychic and Freudian drama from Stockhausen’s abstruse and fragmentary musical material.

Villa-Lobos’ Rudepoema was written as a portrait of and tribute to the composer’s great friend and benefactor, Artur Rubinstein.  It is in one movement, requires the pianist to navigate a huge range of technical difficulties and lasts for 20 minutes without a break.  Hamelin is clearly fascinated by the piece and introduced it from the concert platform.  He said to the audience ‘please don’t report me’ for the ending where the pianist is required to punch the piano with the fist.  Hamelin tossed off the technical difficulties and cadenzas with ridiculous ease.  He projected superbly the rhythmic insistence and savagery of the piece without sacrificing beauty or quality of tone (quite a feat in this work!).  The middle of the piece had a moody, hedonistic feel while the finale was a barnstorming piece of virtuoso playing that brought the house down.

The single staccato notes which open Liszt’s B minor sonata are often thrown away by pianists, but Hamelin played them in a way which conveyed tension and demanded absolute attention from the audience.  He played up the dark Mephistophelean elements of the opening ‘allegro energico’ section.  The double octave playing was extraordinarily powerful while in the passage immediately before the ‘andante sostenuto’ section, Hamelin worked the music up into a cauldron of white heat.  In the ‘andante sostenuto’ section, he conveyed a huge range of orchestral sonorities.  The gorgeous melody was beautifully shaped and the climax had a thrilling intensity and epic grandeur.  The fugato which opens the final section of the sonata was deft and crisp while in the concluding ‘lento’ assai’ Hamelin conveyed a feeling of resignation, the sound and fury having passed.  I spotted a number of (for this pianist) uncharacteristic inaccuracies but, with playing of this quality and musicianship, I really didn’t care.

Hamelin received a standing ovation and treated the Wigmore audience to two encores:  a Liszt transcription of one of Chopin’s Polish songs and a piece which I did not recognise (and bravo to Hamelin for continuing to bring these lesser known works to the attention of the wider musical public).

Robert Beattie