The Supervirtuoso Strikes Again

United StatesUnited States Hamelin, Medtner, Schubert: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Zankel Hall, New York City, 27.1.2014 (BH)

Hamelin: Barcarolle (2012, New York Premiere)
Medtner: Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 2, “Night Wind” (1910-1911)
Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935 (1827)


“It’s like hearing every climax Rachmaninoff ever wrote, crammed into one piece,” said a friend after hearing Nicolai Medtner’s “Night Wind” Piano Sonata, given a rare performance by Marc-André Hamelin at Zankel Hall. Structurally, Medtner sets up several themes competing for attention, overlapping and reappearing as if being hurled about by wind gusts—sometimes as delicate as wind chimes, at others, making the piano’s lower octaves bristle with power. Couple this with a richly chromatic harmonic language and you have a beefy half-hour. Yet in Hamelin’s hands, Medtner’s formidable opus took on a more diaphanous cast. And speaking of hands, the pianist’s voicing ability—whether the melody falls in the left or the right—is extraordinary, as is his touch. A massive rock slide in the left hand may be balanced by the faint glow of a candle in the right.

Hamelin’s own Barcarolle opened the program, and only reconfirmed his status as one of today’s most fascinating players who also happens to compose for the instrument. If his contribution to this historic genre didn’t evoke the gently lapping waters of most, perhaps Hamelin is showing us a different type of motion. Opening with octave arpeggios in the left hand, elaborate filigree soon enters in the right. Later soft block chords march steadily up the keyboard, and then low clusters converge, leaving a single note in their wake. A small, quiet flourish ends it all. Its impact—in retrospect—was even more pronounced coming before the swirling Medtner that followed.

Schubert’s Four Impromptus showed the pianist’s taste, fluidity, and again, his ability to grasp a line and tug it gently into the foreground. Especially in some of the note-heavy pages of No. 1, Hamelin drew the melody with a firm hand. The second of the four was notable for its gorgeous, florid middle section. And in No. 3, full of taste and guidance, he showed his remarkable evenness with scales almost supernaturally clean. The furious Fourth had rhythms carefully pointed, and the final fortissimo tumble caused an immediate outburst of “bravo’s.”

Hamelin rarely shuns encores, and began with a heartstopping “Reflets dans l’eau” from Book I of Debussy’s Images, its shimmering tremors causing the room to grow—if possible—even more silent than before. Following that, Hamelin’s “Minute Waltz in Seconds”—his signature take on Chopin’s classic—caused the room to erupt in laughter. And to close, Hamelin introduced the Etude in A-flat by Paul de Schlözer saying it “makes pianophiles salivate intensely.” If its musical profundity is at a minimum, the amount of jaw-dropping technique is definitely at a maximum.

Bruce Hodges