Only Delight in a Typical Hamelin Bouquet

United StatesUnited States Field, Hamelin, Debussy, Liszt: Marc-André Hamelin (piano). 92nd Street Y, New York City. 21.2.2015 (BH)

John Field: Andante inédit for piano in E-flat major, H. 64 (1852)
Hamelin: Chaconne (2013)
Debussy: Images, Book II (1907)
Liszt: “Bénédiction de dieu dans la Solitude” from Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (1847)
Liszt: Venezia e Napoli, supplement to Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année (1859)

Years ago a friend was discussing dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and commenting on how his artistry was so secure that she could find some kind of “emotional resting point,” knowing that a performance would likely not fall below a certain level. That view was on my mind at Marc-André Hamelin’s quietly virtuosic recital at the 92nd Street Y. There seems to be little that Hamelin cannot play, no matter what the technical challenge may be, whether in the pristine, ideally executed grace-notes of John Field’s Andante inédit, or the knotty excesses of Liszt.

In between came Hamelin’s own edgy Chaconne, which opens with an unaccompanied bass line that almost feels like a 12-tone row, but is actually uses the letters “ESCH” (corresponding to notes E, E-flat, C and B), based on a friend’s name. The subsequent variations include instructions such as “saturated, brutal (almost pure noise).” Seismic upheavals were balanced by quieter, wintry passages that were piercingly effective, especially given the attentive audience.

The second set of Debussy’s Images had some of the evening’s most extraordinary pianissimos; more than many pianists, Hamelin’s surgical care with dynamics is a delight on its own. He also has the ability to sustain a mood, a frame of mind—like meditating on an old snapshot—which served these delicate baubles well.

In the opening of Liszt’s “Bénédiction de dieu dans la Solitude” from Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, Hamelin caressed the melody as if it were a love song. But of course this is Liszt, and that tenderness didn’t last. The opening “Gondoliera” of Venezia e Napoli had me grinning at the pianist’s easy dexterity, as he transformed the composer’s clotted textures into spidery glass. In sprawl after virtuosic sprawl, one could only watch in wonder.

Anyone who has heard Hamelin’s first encore—his own delirious take on Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz—is reminded that classical music could use more humor. A mock-stern warning, “And this time, no monkey business,” introduced a Polish song of Chopin, arranged by Liszt. And a light-speed bite of Haydn—the finale from his Sonata No. 26—made a breathless close.

 Bruce Hodges

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