Ten years ago, no one would ha ve wanted to hear Marc-André Hamelin in Debussy, and rightly so. Now he’s among the best in that sort of repertoire. The transformation of Hamelin from piano-pyrotechnician to musician with great tonal control and a splendid legato is remarkable. He proved that with ease and a gorgeous tone from his Fazioli piano in a recital at Munich’s half-filled Herkulessaal on December 12.
Blame Canada!, National Gallery of Art (18.1.04)
Marc-André Hamelin in New York, Mannes College of Music (4.8.05)
Who for Whom? Marc-André Hamelin Pinch-Hits, Strathmore (10.4.09)
Hamelin @ Strathmore, Strathmore Hall (2.5.11)
Takács and Hamelin, Library of Congress (14.11.12)
Dip Your Ears, No. 19, Nikolai Kapustin (25.11.04)
Debussy’s Images (Book 1) followed seamlessly after Busoni’s wonderfully radical Sonatina Seconda, Hamelin ensuring the applause-less transition—and therefore the hint at harmonic similarities—with the good old curled-at-the-piano-bench technique. If you didn’t know Busoni’s ‘Sonata on Themes from Doktor Faust’ was on the program, the 1912 work could be mistaken for some off-the-wall Debussy; at least for a few bars of airy and tonally adventurous harmonies. But eventually Busoni’s unique blend of German spunk (elsewhere an oxymoron) breaks out of the Germanic-Italian composer and throws into question anyone else’s authorship with passages that are wild, difficult, more difficult-sounding still… then deceptively calm and simple again. The work, underappreciated though it is, can stand proudly next to the exactly contemporaneous Concord Sonata (Ives) and Scriabin’s Seventh Sonata.
The Debussy meanwhile was full of shades and softly subtle tones (Reflets dans l'eau), regal (Hommage à Rameau), and of a seamless rhythmic back-and-forth (Mouvement). L'Isle joyeuse was similarly sumptuous.
Hamelin still pulls out the crazy virtuoso stuff, tough, as he did after intermission with his own Paganini Variations, a marvelously ridiculous work and just the thing for those who love him for Godowski-Chopin Étude outbreaks and Alkan acrobatics. It’s a sack full of pianistic difficulty, spiced with musical references subtle and unsubtle, witty and crude, to Chopin and Rachmaninoff and Beethoven and Liszt and probably many others, which was lapped up with giggles of disbelief and impromptu laughter whenever the audience recognized the original behind the quote.
You’d think the piano would be out of notes after that tour de force, but he still had enough left to play two luscious Rachmaninoff Préludes (op.32/5 and 12) and then the Second Sonata (1931 version). A seeing-eye dog in the audience let out a long, content and sleepy grunt with the onset of the soft and calming second movement, after the stormy first—a sentiment I shared as I indulged in the brawn and sweep, the round tone—but never any smudges—of the remainder of the work. An Andante (inedit, H64) from the father of the Nocturne, John Field, followed as a mellow encore with hints of Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, before Hamelin threw the crowd another virtuoso bone with a Godowski-Chopin Étude. It went to show that the increased depth of his playing has not come at the expense of his wizardry. Hamelin had opened the recital with a meaty Theodor Szántó transcription of Bach's G minor Fantasia & Fugue (BWV 542)... a gravely grandiose opening full of the rhythmic calm and steady propulsion that makes for that uniquely Bachian beauty that no soloist's slips or arranging could endanger.
Washington-area readers should know that Marc-André Hamelin will play essentially the same program in his recital at Shriver Hall in Baltimore next month (January 27, 5:30 pm). [-- Ed.]