Marc-André Hamelin’s Extraordinary Virtuosity in Ives

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ives, Brahms Marc-André Hamelin (piano) Wigmore Hall 27.6.2013 (RB)

Ives – Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord Mass. 1840 – 1860’
Brahms – Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor Op 5

Marc-André Hamelin is moving increasingly into mainstream repertoire and has made celebrated recordings of works by Haydn, Schumann, Liszt and Chopin but he continues to champion lesser known and rarely performed works. Charles Ives’ ‘Concord’ sonata falls into the latter category and it is a work which this Canadian pianist has become closely associated with, as he has recorded it twice (review). It is arguably the most technically demanding work in the solo piano repertoire and it is a work which many pianists avoid not only because they have to navigate its superhuman difficulties, but also on account of the interpretative problems associated with trying to make sense of the sprawling and abstract score.

Ives wrote the ‘Concord’ sonata in the early years of the 20th century beginning work on the piece immediately after he and his wife had visited the town of Concord, Massachusetts on their honeymoon. The four movements of the sonata are named after leading American writers and philosophers who were particularly associated with the Transcendentalist movement – a religious and philosophical movement which developed around Harvard University, whose members believed in the inherent goodness of people and nature. The movements are entitled ‘Emerson’, ‘Hawthorne’, ‘The Allcotts’ (after Amos Bronson and Louisa May Allcott) and ‘Thoreau’. The ‘fate’ motif’ from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony runs through the sonata in various guises.

I was startled to see that Hamelin did not have the score in front of him when he sat down to play the sonata – even professional pianists generally use a score for this piece! He used a wide range of touch, timbre and articulation in ‘Emerson’and there was some excellent phrasing and shaping of the sometimes abstruse thematic material. I particularly liked the quieter sections of the movement where Hamelin allowed the music space to breathe and gave us playing of breathtaking lyricism and tenderness. I was struck by the cleanness of the playing and the very clear demarcation of lines, motifs and harmonies. ‘Hawthorne’is a dazzling scherzo which is fiendishly difficult to play. Hamelin is of course a consummate virtuoso and he successfully negotiated the treacherous technical difficulties while bringing out the brilliance and mercurial qualities in the music. The rhythms were springy and exuberant and there were bursts of completely manic activity with Hamelin showing us his full technical arsenal.

‘The Allcotts’is a picture of domestic harmony in which Ives gives us some of his most lyrical and poetic music – the harmonies are much more conventional and the music more immediately appealing and accessible. Hamelin showed his tonal and dynamic range and did an excellent job in allowing the music to build in intensity. There was some lovely cantabile playing although Hamelin injected a slightly edgy quality into the movement with some of the rhythms and articulation in the inner parts. ‘Thoreau’depicts a pastoral scene and is a meditation on the vastness and diversity of the natural world. There was brilliant control of textures and sonorities in this movement and a wonderful evocation of natural phenomena while the thoughtful and reflective side of Ives’ music came to the fore. What can I say – this was super, brilliant playing to which other mere mortals can only aspire.

The Concord sonata must be an intellectually and physically exhausting work to perform and I did wonder if playing Brahms’ gargantuan F minor sonata immediately after might be the straw that broke the camel’s back. While Hamelin’s technical control in the Brahms was immaculate, I did miss a sense of commitment and emotional engagement with the music particularly in the first two movements. In the opening Allegro maestoso, Hamelin’s octaves were superb and he showed us an impressive range of textures and dynamics. However, I thought it lacked the visceral intensity and thrilling quality that one hears in great performances of the work. The Andante is the still beating heart of the sonata and Hamelin gave us a lovely tonal sheen and succeeded in capturing the symphonic breadth in the music. I was not convinced he quite managed to get to the kernel of the piece and I wanted to hear more tenderness, particularly in the section where sighing two-note phrases alternate between the hands.

With the scherzo, Hamelin seemed to find his form again giving us some spiky and rhythmically taut playing. He brought out the mischievous and playful elements of the score and the arpeggio figurations were played with silky evenness. In the finale, Hamelin gave us a range of vivid contrasts and kept the textures light and airy. The coda was brisk, clean and brilliant bringing the work to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.

The Wigmore audience responded enthusiastically and were rewarded with a performance of the first movement of Mozart’s sonata in C major K545 (for beginners) as an encore.

Robert Beattie