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Blame Canada! — The Invasion of Pianists Continues — by Jens Laurson

This is a review of a concert at the National Gallery of Art on December 28, 2003.

In the 2,478th "William Nelson Cromwell and F. Lammot Belin" Concert at the National Gallery of Art, the fare was another bright star of the keyboard, Canadian Marc-André Hamelin. Known worldwide among music lovers for his superb recordings on the Hyperion label, he has proven himself comfortable with the often fiendishly difficult works of composers such as Godowsky, Alkan, Bolcom, Henselt, et al. The technical skill of this Philadelphia resident is considered by many enthusiasts to be unequaled among active pianists.

As he was playing just a fortnight after his compatriot Angela Hewitt appeared at the National Gallery (see review on December 18), the expectations were accordingly high. The turnout on this mild winter night supports this. Despite post-holiday sluggishness, the West Garden Court filled steadily, and by 6:45 people could no longer find seats. I myself was sandwiched in with three opinionated amateur pianists and classical music lovers who put my feeble knowledge of the subject matter to shame.

Finally, after I had waited some 90 minutes for the concert to start at 7:00, Hamelin appeared from behind the curtain, bowed to much applause, and then, after a short moment in which he gathered his concentration, started to peal off the familiar and delightful notes from W. A. Mozart's Piano Sonata in C major K.330. In his hands, with his manner of playing, the Allegro moderato (played on the fast side) seemed like a delicate little toy that Mr. Hamelin carefully and gently treated to an audible outing. Perhaps this impression stemmed from the absolute ease with which Mr. Hamelin played this piece. Even with the little runs and trill figures at full speed, this isn’t a very difficult piece to play, but for Hamelin, with his unique technical ability and prowess, it must be an apt way to warm up and relax at the same time.

He evoked similar sweet feelings in the Andante cantabile. Hamelin caressed the melody out of the Steinway. The honey he imparted to the notes (to a point where they lacked some of their clarity) was somewhat sedating. The somber character of the music, too, may reflect the influence of Mozart’s mother having died three years prior to the composition of this sonata in 1781. I am told that the style of Hamelin’s playing that I was trying to pin down is called the "Dresden china" approach to Mozart. The name seems fitting enough to remember for future reference.

The much needed Allegretto followed as the last movement, and eyelids in the audience, heavy until a few seconds ago, rose instantly at Marc-André Hamelin’s surprising and unusually energetic beginning. As the piece quaintly bubbled toward its end, concertgoers had plenty of opportunities to observe the borderline-disastrous acoustics of the concrete and stone (plus trees) West Garden Court. Since the sound reflects from the plethora of different surfaces (pillars, side walls, fountain, etc.), notes have little chance of developing without being blurred by others played before or after, and the result is a lush, churchlike sound, only without much of the grace a good church acoustic can offer.

When the last note of the final three hammered chords had barely struck, one audience member felt that his incomparable knowledge of the music was in dire need of showing off and started clapping vigorously. Truly, only the courageous and those free of doubt, with the score of the piece firmly imprinted in their head, dare such erudite behavior. Unfortunately, to those who merely wish to enjoy a nice piece of music (regardless of how and when it ends), it is utterly annoying.

Following the Mozart came another listener-friendly piece, if of an entirely different character. Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke op.12 (eight relatively short pieces with descriptive names) started dreamily, meandering with "Des Abends" (in its subtlety almost untranslatable, but for all practical purposes, "In the Evening" or "Evening-time"). That evening ended on a low chord with a little whimsical note plucked in the upper register. The tone barely gone, Hamelin broke into "Aufschwung" like a berserker . . . the contrast to the preceding mellowness could not be greater. "Soaring," the English title for it in the program notes, is probably not the best translation, and the music and the interpretation were not very soaring, either. "Impetus," "impulse," and even "inspiration" (all literal translations of the noun "Aufschwung") are all more apt at describing this movement than "soaring," which probably comes from "to soar," the literal translation of the verb of the same form, "aufschwingen"). After all, this was no eagle majestically flying about somewhere in the Alps: it was a musical "Eureka moment."

But why not move on: "Warum?" ("Why?") was not badly played at all. Hamelin's pinpoint accuracy and sure-handed excellence continued in this contemplative, sprawling piece. "Grillen" ("Whims") was muscular again and began with some ferocity, bouncing back between the strange and whimsical and (the other translation of "Grillen") melancholic. To descend into darker tones, one needs only to wait for "In der Nacht" with its brooding bubbles, containing much of the type of music that evokes perpetual motion and stands (usually in mediocre films) for pianistic virtuosity. While every note was played correctly, the acoustics and liberal pedaling threw them back together in our ears.

"Fabel" takes a mild approach, until it, too, displays a need for speed after a few bars. It ebbs and flows, acquires significant speed, and finally dribbles out with a thrice-repeated chord. "Traumeswirren" are indeed confused ("troubled") dreams and the end of the song ("Ende vom Lied") comes literally and with some quixotic power. Apparently, the pieces are divided between Schumann’s alter egos Florestan (loquacious and impetuous) and Eusebius (reflective and otherworldly), as Elmer Booze (known to Library of Congress concertgoers as the gentleman who turns the pages in piano-involved concerts) tells us in the program notes.

The intermission brought immediate and wildly varying arguments and perceptions. The only agreement to be found was that Hamelin sounded very different from his recordings, which offer (like most Hyperion-recorded pianists) a rather dry and detailed tone. This difference, however, had some finding the Schumann quite astounding and very enjoyable, while other opinions went all the way to "travesty" and "atrocious." Unhelpful pedaling, muddled thrills, inept phrasing, and swallowed arpeggios seem to have raised the ire with at least one fuming audience member/pianist. My suggestion to blame it partly on the acoustics was better accepted after the concert than at this point.

Fortunately for him, the acquaintance who had been rather outraged at the Mozart and Schumann performance did not make good on his threat to leave and found himself rather enjoying the second half of the concert, in which we got to hear one of the great virtuoso works for piano: Issac Albéniz's Iberia, Book Three: El Albaicín, El polo, and Lavapiés. Iberia, Albéniz's major work (re-orchestrated by some of his students) is an absolute piano masterpiece in scope and varieties of style. From four books of four pieces altogether, the pieces chosen by Mr. Hamelin reflect different regions in Spain (Granada, the Andalusian south, a corner of Madrid), as well as their songs and dances.

"El Albaicín" starts with a fairly reduced theme that grows into more complex structures, only to recede again. As it is far richer in color and shadings than the previous pieces, I constantly found new themes spun out of the core of the playing. There are many notes in this music (I am reminded of the Emperor's hilarious, if fictitious, criticism of Mozart's music in Amadeus: "too many notes"), and not all of those notes have time to develop. Pedal, speed, and acoustics are the main culprits. Speaking of culprit, one attendee had an unfortunate attack of bronchitis and, more unfortunate still, did not have the decency to leave. After some ten minutes of periodic, strenuously suppressed coughing it either got better or I grew used to it.

"El polo," not a diminutive chicken but a dance from Andalusia, is in parts more moderately paced, but like all three pieces it is a heterogeneous sound-carpet. Whimsy comes out to play towards the end, before brute force squashes it. "Lavapiés" opens with a storm, full pedal; one slightly dissonant note sticking out in a repeated chord becomes the calling card of the opening. Rhythmically hopping, somewhere between horses and fat, black flies in boiling summer heat (difficult to conjure in a cold West Garden Court, with late December outside) and more taxing repertoire than anything tonight, this work got more engagement from Mr. Hamelin. Difficult to describe as it is, I opted to sit back and enjoy. In the enjoyment I found myself seconded by all around me, even the dissenting voices earlier. Description, however, varied. While I heard something about an (emotionally?) dry approach, I thought it to have been everything but dry . . . involved, a little slurring (I blame the hall mostly), heavy pedal (intended by the composer, as can be read in the score, not with pedal markings but legato bows in the bass line) made for what I thought was a particularly lush drive down to El Albaicín.

Such nitpicking notwithstanding, it was another night well spent at the National Gallery of Arts, as the evening ended on such a positive, uhm, note.

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