Offbeat Charms from Hamelin

United StatesUnited States  Hamelin, Medtner, Schubert: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Nourse Auditorium, San Francisco. 31.1.2-14 (HS)

Hamelin: Barcarolle
Medtner: Sonata No. 7 in E Minor “Night Wind”
Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935

 A Marc-André Hamelin piano recital always stretches the boundaries, often with some of his own quirky music, pieces by seldom-heard composers, or unfamiliar pieces by familiar ones, mixed with at least one or two touch points of music audiences know well. Aside from extraordinary technique, it’s Hamelin’s genius to present it all with the same confidence and flair, bringing a fierce intelligence to bear.

 Such was the case with his performance Friday evening, his 10th in 11 years presented by San Francisco Performances. This one occurred at Nourse Theater, one of the company’s temporary homes while its regular venue, Herbst Hall, undergoes a remodel. An auditorium in the San FranciscoSchool District’s office building, Nourse was resurrected last year by a presenter of a lecture and interview series. Other SF Performances concerts this season are scattered around town in churches, small theaters and the SFJAZZCenter.

 This was my first exposure to the theater. As a concert venue, the Nourse could use better soundproofing. Motorcycles and sirens on emergency vehicles passing outside often added unwelcome counterpoint to the music. But Hamelin played on unperturbed.

 His centerpiece was the 35-minute hyper-Romantic Sonata No. 7 in E Minor “Night Wind” by Nikolai Medtner, a composer much-lauded in the early decades of the 20th century (especially by Rachmaninoff) and now championed by Hamelin, who has recorded all 14 of his sonatas on Hyperion. It takes someone of Hamelin’s probity to find a coherent musical narrative in Medtner’s rambling, elaborately spangled music, challenging for the pianist to articulate but easy on the ears for listeners. It struck me as “Rachmaninoff Lite,” but Hamelin gave its climactic moments, both loud and soft, such intensity and a sense of underlying urgency that the long stretches of meandering music in between merely served as times to catch one’s breath.

 Of much more interest were Schubert’s Four Impromptus (D.935). The challenge, of course, is to breathe new life into such well known music. This Hamelin did by downplaying the sentiment and relying on the composer’s clarity of thought and innate melodic charm. Schubert’s signature shifts between major and minor were also deftly managed, neither overemphasized nor underplayed. Most of this music is not difficult to articulate—in fact, it’s likely any amateur pianist in the audience had played it themselves at some point—but Hamelin discarded the overly romantic overlays heard most often, simply playing the music with refinement.

 Two short encores sent everyone home with smiles. His own chuckle-inducing deconstruction of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” somehow wove in, among other things, a strain from Strauss’s “Blue Danube.”

Harvey Steiman