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Marc-André Hamelin in New York

Marc-André HamelinMarc-André Hamelin, appearing at the Mannes College of Music as part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival played Schubert's A major sonata, D664, out on its lightest, gentlest side. It was treatment that the work can not only withstand but one that, in the right hands, becomes it. (This in contrast to the Mozart that Ionarts thought too 'Dresden china-y' when we last heard him at the National Gallery.) Given Mr. Hamelin's famous technical faculties, I am convinced that his neurons don't even bother firing up certain parts of his brain until he starts playing Godowsky or Liszt... both of which, conincidentally, were served up after the Schubert. The A major sonata meanwhile did not suffer from his excess skill, though the outer movements (Allegro moderato and Allegro) were more convincing than a slightly angular Andante.

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L. Godowsky, Complete Studies on Chopin's Etudes,
M.-A. Hamelin

But let's be honest: Godowsky or Alkan is what you'd want to hear in a Hamelin recital. Everything else would be like going to the Royal Shakespeare Theater Company and see them do Beckett - until someone yells "Get to the 'to-be-or-not-to-be part'!" It's part sensationalism, part voyeurism, but I consume it unapologetically because it is simply awesome to see someone play a work by a composer/pianist who thought that those Chopin études really were too darn easy. Hamelin seems to agree, as he played 9 of the 53 Studies after Chopin's Etudes as fleet and assuredly as one expects from him, even if it is against all pianistic probability. Some, if not most, of the studies are the keyboard equivalent of a violinist playing the melody in the left hand's pizzicato over a series of arpeggios on one string. Hearing the one dropped note in Mr. Hamelin's performance is as satisfying a rarity as spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker and takes nothing away from the awe that sets in rather quickly. I may have used the quip one too many times already, but it really was one of those performances that made you want to start playing the piano - or quit, if you already do. Hearing Study No. 1 (Etude No. 1, op. 10, on steroids and acid) alone was a perverse and stunning delight. Next time, though, I want him to play the mirror inversion backwards with a blindfold.

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F. Liszt, Liszt at the Opera,
Leslie Howard

More of the daunting, delicious stuff after intermission. The Liebestod via Franz Liszt asks for Liszt-typical technical proficiency, Wagner-appropriate weight, and Debussy-like colors. Two out of three - and I am not being facetious - ain't bad. To say that the last bit of evocativenes was missing might be true, but it would be criticism of playing on such a high level that it would border on casuistry. If I thought no such thing missing from the concert paraphrase of Verdi's Ernani, I hope that was due to the playing (super fine, drizzled arpeggios) or the character and demands of the work and not due to my (inherent?) bias towards Verdi. Reminiscences de 'Norma', as the name suggests, is another step further removed from a straightforward transcription such as Isolden's Liebestod or the already more losely based 'Ernani'. Whether these works are worthy compositions in their own right or concert-hall hodge-podge entertainers doesn't really matter, because they are impressive and, well..., entertaining enough to remain in the repertoire even in an age where we could all go home and download the whole of Ernani, Tristan und Isolde, and Norma onto our iPods or at least listen to it in the library the next day. Yes, they are in part show-off works, but then that's why we stand in line to see a a pianist's pianist like Marc-André Hamelin, isn't it? Spectacular it was and impressive - or depressing - depending on your level of piano-playing ambition.

Anyone, meanwhile, who saw the jam-packed Mannes College concert hall with an audience of an average age of near or even below 30 might hesitate to spell out doom for the future of American classical music concert audiences. By the time all the piano connoisseur-tweens have reached their 40s, they'll have spread the passion manifold among acquaintances, friends, and lovers. They also got a few encores on the way, including a Chopin/Liszt Polish Song, a work titled "Anamorphosis" by Salvatore Sciarr(in)o that was a hilarious and self-deprecating study (part Ravel, part "Singing in the Rain"), and Antheil's riotous and painfully funny Jazz Sonata - one of the "most perfect musical crimes ever committed" according to Mr. Hamelin.

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