A Hug for a Veteran Composer from Hamelin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Liszt, Yehudi Wyner, Chopin: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), International Keyboard Institute and Festival, The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, New York City. 19.7.2015 (BH)

Liszt: Apparition No. 1 in F sharp minor, S. 155 No. 1
Waldesrauschen, S. 145 No. 1
Un sospiro, S. 144, No. 3
Ernani Paraphrase (second version), S. 432
Réminiscences de Norma (after Bellini), S. 394
Yehudi Wyner: Toward the Center (1988)
Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35

It is hardly news that pianists love Chopin and Liszt. But flanking those two, the most touching moment in Marc-André Hamelin’s recital at the Kaye Playhouse came when the pianist welcomed the 86-year-old composer Yehudi Wyner to the stage, greeting him with an affectionate embrace. Wyner, who has been graced with many awards and currently serves as President of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, is highly regarded, but his work is off the radar for many listeners. He wrote Toward the Center to honor the 1988 retirement of Yale University School of Music pianist and teacher Ward Davenny, and the result shows a commensurate multi-faceted admiration. Lasting about 15 minutes, the angular, high-energy fantasy seemed perfectly suited to Hamelin’s bent for expressivity combined with intellectual curiosity.

Hamelin’s annual appearances at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival (IKIF) have drawn piano aficionados from all over the country. While I confess a slight longing for the festival’s former home—the intimate hall at Mannes School of Music, seating around 200—the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College made it possible for three times the number of people to experience Hamelin’s artistry. And the rapt audience was notable for its silence.

The first half was devoted to Liszt, starting with control and patience in the glittering Apparition No. 1. In Waldesrauschen, the pianist summoned a room-filling luxuriance from the hall’s impressive Bösendorfer instrument, and his right and left hands displayed synchronization many pianists would envy. The understated Un suspiro showed Hamelin’s ability to wrest drama out of the composer’s unusual chord progressions, especially during the final 60 seconds. In the paraphrase from Verdi’s Ernani, octaves were implanted like steel girders in an immense pool of sound, and the thundering conclusion to Réminiscences de Norma sparked applause seconds before the last granitic chord had died away.

Hamelin aptly made the “March funebre” the centerpiece of Chopin’s second Sonata, and the sheer presence of sound was immediate, impressively solemn, and never cloying—the difference between seeing a photograph of a sculpture, and witnessing it in person. In the menacing Scherzo, the pianist expertly shaped the dreamlike oasis at the center, as well as the Presto finale. Debussy’s dreamily pentatonic “Reflets dans l’eau” made a delicious encore—the only one, even with a loud audience pleading and stamping its approval. A great pianist knows when to stop.


Bruce Hodges

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