In the music world, there are pianists, and then there is Marc-André Hamelin. This incredible musician has the ability to make the most difficult, complex music sound easy, even effortless. Yesterday’s recital by the great Canadian pianist was one of the greatest feats of piano playing I had heard in a long time.
The first half of Hamelin’s recital was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt. In the opening work, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor, Hamelin conveyed the improvisatory feeling of the opening measures (malinconico). It was in the vivace section that we first witnessed Hamelin’s effortless virtuosity, tossing off the runs (e molto leggiero) and the repeated notes (leggiero molto) with a lightness that was breathtaking. Hamelin’s technical abilities were so far above the challenges of the music that the closing octave and chordal passages sounded positively exhilarating.
The third work in Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is, for me, one of the composer’s most profoundly beautiful works. In the opening, Hamelin made the awkward right hand accompaniment sound smooth and floating, at the same time projecting the gorgeous left hand melody. More importantly, the artist conveyed the spiritual core of the music. The climatic passages sounded absolutely exultant, but never forced.
The Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H once again reminded us of Hamelin’s awesome command of the keyboard as well as his awareness of the architecture of the work. Under his hands, this somewhat loosely constructed work took on a logic that is sometimes missing. In the more dramatic passage, Hamelin conjured up such massive sonorities that the sound of the piano took on orchestral qualities. It reminded me of the incident when Liszt himself played his transcription of Belioz’s March to the Scaffold, from his Symphonie Fantastique. Under Liszt’s hands, the work became more effective on the piano than even the orchestra.
In all three Liszt works that made up the first half of his recital, Hamelin held the music within a tight rhythmic framework, thereby giving the music an appealing restraint and a sense of nobility.
With any Hamelin recital, there would always be the new and unexpected, and the discovery in the second half had to be Samuil Feinberg’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat minor, Op. 6. A Russian pianist and composer who lived between the years 1890 to 1962, Feinberg’s work is stylistically reminiscent of Scriabin. A one-movement work of about 10-minute duration, there is, within that relatively short time, a myriad of moods, textures, and tempi. Once again, Hamelin was able to make sense of, or allow us to see the logic behind, this complex work. Regardless of how dense the pianistic forest is, this remarkable artist always seemed to see his way clearly through.
Hamelin continued the second half with Claude Debussy’s Images, Book 1. The entire performance was ravishing, in a cool, objective kind of way. It was not the kind of beauty with great splashes of colour, like a Monet or a Renoir, but one of absolute textual clarity, and an unerring evenness of touch and tone. He played Reflets dans l’eau with little of the rubato that the composer indicated. Hamelin seemed to be operating within a rather narrow range of sonorities. Even the big transition to E-flat major was somehow underplayed. That said, it was a performance that has its own logic and exquisiteness. In Hommage à Rameau, Hamelin conveyed the feeling of emptiness and nothingness in the opening of the work. He evoked beautiful sonorities from the piano in Commeneer un peu au dessous du mouvement, building the music up to its incredible climax before returning to the desolate landscape of the opening. In Mouvement, Hamelin played the triplets with the most incredible lightness and evenness that took one’s breath away. The decrescendo towards the end of the work (presque plus rien) was the most beautiful I had ever heard.
Not surprisingly, Hamelin pulled out all his pianistic stops with the final work on the programme, Leopold Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song. Hamelin is one of the few contemporary pianists with the courage, not to mention the superhuman pianistic chops required to play these Godowsky “reworkings” of Johann Strauss. Needless to say, the playing was both musically impeccable and pianistically stunning. My only quibble was that it was a little lacking in a sense of fun, or the feeling that he was pulling an incredible stunt (which he was).
Under the urging of the appreciative audience, he gave us what would probably have been the Vancouver premiere of his own Toccata “L’Homme armé”. Written as the commissioned piece of the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, Hamelin’s work tests to the limit every pianist’s technical and musical ability. Throughout the recital, I had the feeling that Hamelin approaches each work with the insight of a composer. Here, we were witness to a composer giving us his take on his own composition. It was a satisfying end to an incredible afternoon of piano playing and musicianship.
March 5, 2018