Marc-André Hamelin: Imperturbable as Ever

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Busoni, Ravel, Hamelin, Liszt: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Stern/Perlman Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, 20.1.2016. (SSM)

Mozart: Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545

Busoni: Giga, bolero e variazione  (after Mozart) from An die Jugend

Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit

Hamelin: Pavane Variée (New York Premiere)

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor

I make a habit of trying to catch all of Marc-André Hamelin’s recitals in New York. Surprisingly, this concert was only his third solo event in the main hall at Carnegie Hall. His first appearance was in 1985 as a contestant (and winner) of  the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition for Pianists. The second time was in 1988. Another 15 or so visits have seen him as part of a group or as pianist in a concerto. His recitals are always occasions to catch up with his widening musical interests and, of course, to see which impossibly difficult works he has chosen with which to awe the audience. Unlike many touring artists, he rarely plays the same concert twice. Not to denigrate the status of Angela Hewitt or Andras Schiff, but their seasonal recitals are set programs performed at every stop on their tours. Hamelin may play a Medtner or Scriaban sonata in New York. But rest assured that the next day in Boston, he might play the same composers but often different works. One can only imagine how much repertory he has internalized as he never performs with a score in front of him.

My interest in him grew out of his recording of Godowsky’s transformations of the Chopin Études, which created the odd title “Studies on the Studies of Chopin.” These pieces are not simply transcriptions but rather reworkings that gain effect through their increased difficulty. Hamelin is at his peak in these recordings, accepting every challenge Godowski put in his score, and then some. Most amazing are those that were written for one hand  ̶  Chopin’s original Études are difficult enough to perform with two.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545, the sonic opposite of what one expects from Hamelin. Mozart himself called this piece “sonata facile.” But nothing by Mozart is really easy and getting to the heart of the music cannot be done by overpowering it. There are big pianists who can temper their style and get lovely results. Sokolov is one: a bear of a man, capable of the most delicate and lyrical Mozart. Hamelin, not surprisingly, excels at Haydn, with several albums recorded. Haydn can tolerate big gestures: Hamelin plays Haydn sensibly and is always in touch with the composer’s humor. With Mozart, Hamelin gets the sonata’s big picture but not the heart of the work which is in the details.

Much of the delight in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit  comes from sounds never produced before on the piano: the gleaming and glistening glissandos of “Ondine”; the relentless repetition of B-flat chords representing the tolling of bells before the gallows in “Gibet”; and “Scarbo,” one of the most challenging pieces of music ever written. Aiming to portray goblins and dwarfs, the music becomes progressively gnarly, with dissonances made up from appoggiaturas that remain unresolved and groups of arpeggiated seventh and ninth chords. Hamelin reveled in the work’s technical demands, playing some of the most difficult chords as fast as humanly possible.

A gap in my musical knowledge was a piece that I came to through Busoni’s transcription of it: Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Gigue,” K. 574. Busoni must have been attracted to this work by its modern sensibility, so modern, in fact, that he barely changed the first and second binary sections, merely transposing everything down an octave. The variations occur only after the bolero, a slightly disguised  rendering of the fandango from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The only uniquely Busoni-style material is the melding of both sources. It sounded very modern, and Hamelin accomplished this by avoiding legato, emphasizing a détaché styling instead. One need only listen to the transitional “12 tone row” of the first movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, written a few years earlier, to realize what Mozart was capable of envisioning about the future of music.

Hamelin’s own composition, Pavane Variée, opens on a 16th-century dance tune that is heard once but then is varied with such heavy Lisztian chords and use of the pedals that we only get a sense of  the direction in which Hamelin is taking us. It’s certainly a piece that deserves a more thorough listening before judging its worth.

For many, including me, the Liszt piano sonata that concluded the program is his masterpiece. Liszt wrote an immense amount of music; recording his entire piano output consumes just under a hundred CDs. Much of this is bombast, and there are volumes and volumes of  transcriptions, which are the work of a craftsman. Because he didn’t possess the genius of Beethoven, Liszt settled for transcribing all of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano.

This sonata is different. Even the term sonata barely describes what is really a fantasia on the order of Schuman’s Fantasia, Op.17. Although the score has tempo markings which signify a new section, it would be hard to call them end-of-movement signifiers. There is also little of the classical sonata form in either the individual sections or in their relation to one another.

The piece is arduous, to say the least, and I’ve heard it attempted by young, extremely talented performers who nail the very difficult  technical aspects. But that is only part of the whole: once you get past the tough passages, you have to rethink the score. This is an ideal work for Hamelin’s mind and body. He doesn’t need to be concerned with playing the notes, and that allows him the freedom to be more sensitive to the work’s emotional content. There are enough ppp’s and fff’s for him to display the range of colors throughout the dynamic palette.

Seemingly unfased by this massive effort, Hamelin performed three encores which were no child’s play. The last and most familiar work was the final prelude from Debussy’s Book 2 of Préludes. What could be a more appropriate end to a concert of fireworks than feux d’artifice.

Stan Metzger                                                                          

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