Dark, Nocturnal Visions in a Superb Recital by Marc-André Hamelin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hamelin, Medtner, Janáček, Ravel: Marc-André Hamelin (piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 4.11.2013 (RB)

Marc-André Hamelin – Barcarolle (London première)
Medtner: Piano Sonata in E minor Op 25 No. 2 ‘Night Wind’
Janáček: – 7 pieces from ‘On an Overgrown Path’
Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

For this post-Halloween recital, Marc-André Hamelin presented the Wigmore audience with a selection of dark, nightmarish visions from the first half of the 20th Century together with a composition of his own. The Medtner and the Ravel are both fiendishly difficult works and the former’s ‘Night Wind’ sonata is rarely performed. It is good to see Hamelin continuing to champion these lesser known works – he has recorded all the Medtner sonatas (review) and it is definitely worth getting hold of this collection if you want to get to know this composer better.
Hamelin is renowned for his astonishing feats of memory – which we were to witness first hand later on in the recital – so I was slightly surprised to see him using a score for his own composition. It was a fairly modern work which reminded me a little of the early music of Alban Berg. The barcarolle rhythm was represented by chords in the left hand which were decorated with phantasmagorical traceries in the right. There were some interesting tone clusters, pianistic figurations and sonorities in the piece and I rather enjoyed it.
Medtner’s ‘Night Wind’ sonata was originally dedicated to Rachmaninov, who revered the work. It is in one unbroken movement and it demands huge technical athleticism at the keyboard as well as enormous concentration since the pianist is required to sustain its eddying and changing textures and themes for 35 minutes without a break. The music seems to straddle the brooding romantic melancholy of Rachmaninov and the mystical impressionism of Scriabin. It is an extraordinary stream of consciousness – almost a musical analogue to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Joyce’s Ulysses – and it is music which seems to connect very much with the unconscious. The work is headed with two stanzas of a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) and the first gives the work its title: “What are you wailing about, night wind, what are you bemoaning with such fury?”


Hamelin dispensed with a score for the Medtner, which is to be applauded given the length and complexity of this work. He deployed a wonderful range of tone colours to convey the heady and brooding melancholy of the opening while the swirling semiquaver figurations which represent the night wind of the title were dispatched with a velvety lightness of touch. The key themes emerged organically and naturally from the sprawling textures with Hamelin doing a wonderful job in highlighting key motivic relationships and in synthesising the huge abstract score. At various points in the sonata the bar lines seemed to disappear altogether and we were left to luxuriate in the profusion of musical ideas. In the second section of the work, Hamelin brought out the heightened and transcendent feelings in the score by approaching Medtner’s shifting textures and sonorities in a highly imaginative way. This pianist has the technique to navigate the enormous technical difficulties with relative ease and he was much more focused on creating a new sound world and musical effects. The final leggierissimo flourishes were executed with cut glass refinement as Medtner’s towering vision finally disappeared into the infinite.
The second half of the recital opened with a selection of miniatures from Book 1 of Janáček’s ‘On an Overgrown Path.’ These short pieces were dispatched with sensitivity, Hamelin showing us that he could be a poet as well as a virtuoso. The Moravian folk elements in the music were played in an idiomatic way while each of the miniatures were vividly characterised. We moved from the joyous feelings of young love in ‘A Leaf Blown Away by the Wind’ to the nostalgia of ‘They Chattered Like Swallows’ to the tender and intimate feelings of ‘In Tears.’ The unsettled poetic ambiguity of ‘Good Night!’ was realised in an exquisite way.
The final work on the recital was Ravel’s “Three Romantic Poems of Transcendental virtuosity” based on the dark visions of Aloysius Bertrand. I was slightly surprised by how sparingly Hamelin used the pedal in ‘Ondine’ but it meant that you could hear a lot more of the detail. The shimmering figurations, rippling arpeggios and glissandi were all played with an extraordinary degree of technical finish. The bleak desolation of ‘Le Gibet’ was brought chillingly to life with Hamelin introducing some hesitations to create an even more unsettled atmosphere in the macabre scene. He injected a degree of emotional warmth into the central section giving the piece its one vestige of humanity. The energetic pyrotechnics of ‘Scarbo’ were dispatched with power and vitality and the driving rhythms and repeated notes were scintillating. The nightmarish goblin with his pirouettes and peals of demonic laughter were conjured up in in all their malevolent glory while the climaxes were played with enormous power. Like Medtner’s ‘Night Wind,’ Ravel’s ‘Scarbo’ also vanishes into the ether.

We heard three encores: Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans L’Eau,’ a virtuoso arrangement of Chopin’s ‘Minute’ waltz and a study by a lesser known composer. World class playing from Hamelin.
Robert Beattie

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