Hamelin in a Beast of an Evening—with Laughs

United StatesUnited States  Bach, Busoni, Debussy, Hamelin, Rachmaninoff: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), 92nd Street Y, New York City, 30.1.2013

Bach: Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (arr. Theodor Szántó)
Busoni: Sonatina seconda
Debussy: Images, Book I: “Reflets dans l’eau,” “Hommage à Rameau,” “Mouvement”; L’Isle Joyeuse
Hamelin: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (New York premiere)
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5; Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12; Sonata No. 2, Op. 36

Mozart: Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545, “Allegro”
Chopin: Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1, “Minute Waltz” (arr. Hamelin)

Introducing the first of his two encores after this astounding recital at the 92nd Street Y, Marc-André Hamelin said gently, “There’s a very simple reason I play this so much—because I love it.” What came next was the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 16, a model of simplicity and restraint—the pianist showing no signs of fatigue after Rachmaninoff’s beefy Second Sonata that closed the program.

That Hamelin offered any encores at all after this astonishing pianistic display was generous on its own. The second one, his own take on Chopin’s evergreen “Minute Waltz,” I first heard in 2012 at his summer recital for the International Keyboard Institute and Festival. Of the waltz’s “A-B-A” structure, Hamelin plays the first “A-B” normally (or as “normally” as a musician of his caliber does it) but when the “A” returns, he adds an extra note to each existing one, to uproarious effect. (Inquiring minds would like to know if he is playing two keys with one finger, or using a different finger for each note. In any case, it must be a stunt that can’t be maintained for very long—and ideal here.)

The program proper opened with Theodor Szántó’s arrangement of Bach’s Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, during which I had the oddest sensation of hearing Stokowski and an entire room of musicians being conjured up from under the piano lid. Bach’s density was complemented by Hamelin’s clarity. Busoni’s Sonatina seconda (which program annotator Luke Howard describes as “an impressionistic keyboard piece based on viscous black oil rather than sparkling water”) is mysterious, diabolical and smoky, and—like many of this pianist’s choices—very difficult.

In a small masterstroke, Hamelin paused just enough after the Busoni to subtly discourage applause, and began Debussy’s Images—one of the nicest transitions between the obscure and the not-so that I’ve heard in months. In “Reflets dans l’eau,” Hamelin’s hands were fluttering effortlessly, as bewitching as a dream. “Hommage à Rameau” returned with a crystalline rush, yet maintaining an epic quality. And “Mouvement,” with its rapid repeated figures, seemed mercurial, delicate—and virtually impossible to play.

Anyone who has heard any of Hamelin’s etudes—written to please himself, which means that very few others will be able to tackle them—knows he has a sneaky sense of humor. That trait propelled his Variations on a Theme by Paganini into the evening’s most jaw-dropping offering. Imagine Paganini’s familiar melody given a Pictures at an Exhibition quality, with each reiteration given an episode of delirious difficulty. My favorite of many, including dead-on homages to Bach and Beethoven, was about sixty seconds long, in which brief clips of “The Piano’s Greatest Hits” appear and vanish—a sort of sophisticated version of “I can name this tune in XX number of notes.” One wanted to laugh constantly, but doing so would have meant missing much of Hamelin’s dazzlement.

Two Rachmaninoff Preludes from Op. 32—in G major and G-sharp minor—made a daunting introduction to the finale, his Second Sonata. With a skillfully judged sense of when to surge forward and when to pull back, the piece had its share of ruminative moments, until the final “Allegro molto” brought out the remaining box with the evening’s unused fireworks.


Bruce Hodges