With the Seattle Symphony, Hamelin Offers Chopin Shading into Liszt

United StatesUnited States  Muhly, Schubert, and Chopin: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 26-28.1.2012 (BJ)

Commissioned by the Seattle Symphony jointly with the Kitchener-Waterloo and Winnipeg symphony orchestras, Nico Muhly’s So Far So Good gave the audience at these Seattle subscription concerts much to enjoy. Muhly, born in Vermont thirty years ago and now living in New York, is a craftsmanlike composer with an acute ear for orchestral sonorities. But, more than that, his new roughly 15-minute piece manages to be simple without being simplistic.

The opening measures are immediately engaging, stertorous interjections in the lower brass interacting with a prevailing curtain of delicate harmonies. This proves to be suggestive of the path the entire piece is to follow: there is something reminiscent of Bachian chorale prelude technique, even of the still older language of the Renaissance cantus firmus, in Muhly’s superimposition of long-breathed melodic lines – many of them, beautifully played on this occasion, for solo woodwinds and brass – against a texture of rapid figurations in a variety of other instruments.

Altogether it was a refreshing world premiere, well contrasted with the rest of a basically romantic program. The second half was devoted to Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto – the one in F minor, and actually the first in order of composition. The soloist was the widely admired Marc-André Hamelin, who may still be regarded as a “young lion” of the keyboard even though he recently turned 50.

There can be no questioning Hamelin’s spectacular virtuosity, and he dashed off even the most challenging passages as if they were child’s play. To my ears, however, his tone in the upper reaches of the keyboard didn’t often sing, and I also thought there was something exterior rather than poetic – something almost hectoring – about his attack on the music’s occasional outbursts of forte and fortissimo chords. As I have found in the past, Hamelin is an interpreter who seems to be better attuned to Lisztian rhetoric than to Chopinesque intimacy – and this was borne out by the encore he gave us, a Liszt arrangement of a Chopin song, which he played to coruscating perfection.

The middle of the program was supplied by Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, which was afforded an eloquent performance, by turns lyrical and compellingly dramatic, under Ludovic Morlot’s direction. Without any fussy underlining of tempo differences, the conductor managed to make the pulse of the work’s two movements, both written in triple meter, sound subtly different – perhaps the hardest nut in this masterpiece to crack convincingly – and the orchestra responded to its still new-ish music director with powerfully committed playing.

Bernard Jacobson