Hamelin’s Schubert the Worthy Legacy of a Great Teacher

United StatesUnited States Field, Hamelin, Debussy, and Schubert: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 31.3.2015 (BJ)

Field: Andante inédit
Hamelin: Pavane Variée
Debussy: Images, Book II
Hamelin: Variations on a Theme of Paganini
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960


Great music can accommodate and respond to a wide variety of interpretative approaches. If it were not so, there might be a place for the deadly word “definitive” in writings about music. As it is, there is always room for new light to be cast on a piece we thought we knew through and through.

Music as wonderful as Schubert’s last piano sonata is especially susceptible to such rediscovery, or rather fresh discovery. Over the years, in concert and on record, I have heard many great performances of it, by pianists ranging from Schnabel, Serkin (Rudolf), Richter, Haskil, and Curzon to Brendel, Barenboim, Moravec, Lupu, Daniel Levy, Naum Grubert, Craig Sheppard, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and Stephen Hough, and no two of them have ever ploughed identical interpretative furrows for long.

In this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, Marc-André Hamelin established the special character of his interpretation from the very start. Unlike the free-flowing manner with which many pianists begin their traversals, his phrasing of the opening theme, that sustained and profoundly ruminative melody played over shorter notes of accompaniment, was intensely introspective, almost painfully searching in the way he seemed to examine every note, consider it from every possible angle, and only then slot it into its place in the narrative. (The enchanting trio section in the third movement of the G-major Sonata, by the way, is another place that yields equal measures of Schubertian magic to widely disparate ways of playing, such as the seemingly insouciant straightforwardness of a Lupu and the more nuanced rhythmic elasticity of a Brendel.)

Hamelin’s keenly intellectual opening proved to have been an accurate harbinger of the manner and quality of a quite superb performance. The more I have thought about it since, the greater it has seemed to become in my mind. At the time, I felt, as I have felt about some Hamelin performances in the past, that the tone did not sing as it might have done, and there was an occasional moment when his technical wizardry made a passage sound more like Liszt than Schubert. But in retrospect the various facets of his interpretation have come cogently together. The absence of singing tone was a bearable exchange for the positive value of the sheer quietude he brought to the work. And anyway, it would be merely foolish to cavil at the apparent—but only apparent—Lisztian ease with which he threw off the finale’s dashing coda, just because it offered no hint of the slight awkwardness that even so great a pianist as Schnabel betrayed in tackling that technically challenging passage.

With such rewards abundant after intermission, it was of little importance that the first half of the program offered a less exalted degree of satisfaction. Hamelin played a charming piece by the early-19th-century Irish composer John Field affectionately, and the three pieces in Book II of Debussy’s Images with a quiet concentration that presaged his way with Schubert. Of his own two pieces on the program, I found the Pavane Variée disappointing; after Hamelin told us that the pavane Belle qui tiens ma vie attributed speculatively to the 16th-century Thoinot Arbeau is “a strikingly beautiful love song,” he then loosed on it a virtuoso set of variations that seemed to preserve nothing of its beauty. His Paganini set, on the other hand, was good, clean, rumbustious fun.

But it was the Schubert that made the evening. Appropriately, Hamelin chose as encore not a brilliant piece but the poetic A-flat-major Allegretto from the composer’s second set of Impromptus, D. 935, and his performance of it achieved true sublimity. It worthily crowned a recital that had been  prefaced with commemorative remarks about Hamelin’s teacher, my beloved friend Harvey Wedeen, head of the keyboard department at Temple University, who had died two weeks earlier, a few days short of his 88th birthday. The pianist spoke of Harvey warmly and briefly until, as he touchingly put it, throwing up his hands, words failed him.

Notes, however, did not.

Bernard Jacobson

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