Virtuosity in Abundance from Marc-André Hamelin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt, Feinberg, Lyapounov:  Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Wigmore Hall, 19.6.2016. (CC)

Liszt, Apparition, S155/1. Waldesrauschen, S145/1. Un Sospiro, S144/3. Ernani: Paraphrase de Concert, S432. Réminiscences de Norma, S394

Feinberg, Piano Sonatas: No. 2, Op. 1; No. 1, Op. 1

Lyapounov, Études d’exécution transcendente: No. 10, “Lesghinka”; No. 12, “Elégie en mémoire de François Liszt”

Marc-André Hamelin, super-pianist. The description seems the perfect fit; yet he is a pianist of depth, also, as his box of Busoni piano music for Hyperion conclusively proved. It is in works with forests of notes that he excels, feeding off technical challenge; or in exploring the byways of the repertoire, be that obscure composers, or the lesser-known works of major composers. It was the latter that opened this particular programme: the Apparition, S155/1. An early work (1834), it actually sounds like a pre-echo of Liszt’s enigmatic late period, and one has to imagine that was the rationale for its inclusion here. Pulse is deliberately veiled by the composer, and tremolandi take on a distinctly disconcerting aspect. Misty and harmonically ambiguous to begin with, the right-hand also has a tendency to meander mysteriously. There is a barcarolle connection here, and the piece rises to an imposing climax, surprisingly brittle here.

The miraculous outpouring that is Liszt’s Waldesrauschen (one of the two Etudes de concert that comprise S145) was beautifully done. Impetuous rather than a masterclass in subtlety, as one might perhaps expect from this pianist, but including some simply gorgeous pianissimo roulades. From the Etudes de Concert, S 144, the well-known Un Sospiro emerged as crystal clear and refreshing, the accompaniment speaking beautifully. The baritone register statement of the theme was very vocal in nature indeed; the close was particularly darkly shaded, and effectively so.

From two rather restrained pieces to the two show-stoppers that closed the first half. The “Paraphrase de concert” on Ernani opening in simply huge fashion; Hamelin’s script was to emphasise the darkness (and indeed the drama) of this piece. A different type of forest to Waldesrauschen here: forests of notes instead of trees, delivered with impeccable virtuosity. Hamelin was absolutely in his element. One thing that really stood out here (and was noticeable throughout the evening) was how stationary Hamelin is when he plays; his core body hardly moves at all, the emotion and colour comes from arms and fingers. Not for him ungainly facial grotesqueries, either. The concentration is all on the music. The Réminscences de Norma began with preternaturally together chords that seemed to enter a dark tunnel; the march, though, was very bright-toned (Hamelin’s Steinway actually sounded more like a Yamaha at that point). Against all that, and some awe-inspiring fortissimo block chords, was the melting lyricism of the melody of the aria “Deh! Non volerli vittime”. Scarily difficult towards the end, Hamelin’s hair-raising virtuosity brought cheers, but is presumably all in a day’s work for this pianist.

It was an inspired choice to begin the second half with music by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962). See my review of a disc of Feinberg piano music on BIS, over 12 years ago now on Musicweb International here. Renewing contact with Feinberg’s music is refreshing and confirms its stature. Hamelin opted to play the Second Sonata (1916/16) first, to fine effect as its fragranced, Scriabinesque beginning led us gently into this world of mysticism in sound. Hamelin’s strength was to emphasise the fluidity of the music (even more so than Christophe Sirodeau does on BIS). Shaded, twilit yet beautifully articulated, this was a triumph. The Chopinesque chords of the end led to the more impulsive First Sonata (1915), its thoughtful opening gently deepening into ever more complex harmonic fields. Like some of the Liszt pieces of the first half, there are acres of notes here, but this is a more subtle method of delivery. One fervently hopes for more Feinberg from this source.

Lyapounov’s Douze Études d’exécution transcendante, Op. 11 takes over from Liszt. Liszt only wrote twelve transcendental studies so Lyapounov provided the balance. No. 10, “Lesghinka” is named after a Caucasian dance. It is linked to Balakirev’s Islamey in spirit, something immediately in evidence from Hamelin’s opening. A fascinating piece (the harmonic inflections are really quite addictive), there are piles of Lisztian tropes, but with a decidedly Russian accent. The twelfth Étude is an elegy in memory of Liszt. While No. 10 came in at around seven minutes, this “Elégie” comes in at more like eleven or twelve. Composed in the spirit of the master’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, the piece combined robust statement with melting tenderness, magnificently delivered here by Hamelin. Right-hand tremolandi towards the close pointed the finger straight at Liszt.

Encores were inevitabile and the only surprise is that there were only two: Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat, D935/2 and a sprightly, even cheeky Haydn sonata movement. Perhaps there were quite enough notes in the recital proper – more than enough to see us through for quite a while, in fact. But what a treat.

Colin Clarke