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Hamelin @ Strathmore

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Haydn, Piano Sonatas

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Schumann, Carnaval (inter alia)

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Hamelin, Etudes
Marc-André Hamelin sneaked onto the Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Piano Series through the back door last year, when he stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing Krystian Zimerman. Although that luxury substitution should have been enough to start building a broader audience in Washington for Hamelin -- a daredevil virtuoso who also has an acute musical intelligence -- the number of empty seats at Strathmore on Friday night seemed to indicate it has not happened yet. Hamelin was back, this time with his own recital for WPAS, and although the program was a bit of a mish-mash with one real dud at the end, with Hamelin at the keyboard one is sure to have one's ears and brain tickled.

Just like last year, he opened with a polished pearl of a Haydn sonata, this time in E minor (Hob. XVI:34). The outer movements -- Presto and Molto vivace, respectively -- were perfectly suited to the delicate, feathery, spritely approach favored by Hamelin, weightless even at very fast tempi. The endless decoration, especially in the last movement, purled from his hands without a hint of fussiness or excess theatricality. His exquisite touch on the keys, weighting and voicing each note just so, made the second movement, with its operatic flights of fancy in the right hand, particularly effective. The same strengths were on display in the reprise of the same Fauré nocturne he played last year, op. 63/6, wisps of melody in a misty, wandering setting of perfumed sighs that did not descend into the merely saccharine.

The two larger works on the program were in celebration of composers with recent or current anniversaries being observed. Hamelin played many of the movements of Schumann's Carnaval, op. 9, in a refreshingly straightforward way, stripping most of the sentimentality from the Chopin movement, for example -- in a way recalling the forthright virtuosity of Hamelin's recent Chopin disc. The Préambule was noisy and raucous, with a booming left hand and plenty of carnivalesque chaos. Pierrot was sweet and a little awkward, with its obsessive repetition of the same motif (E-flat, C, B-flat), and Harlequin playful in the big leaping dotted rhythms. The wandering right hand in the Eusebius movement floated over beautiful voicings in the left hand, and the contrasting Florestan was irascible and fizzy. Fast movements like Papillons, Pantalon et Colombine, and Reconnaissance, with its percolating repeated notes, floated and whirled at a breathtaking pace. The only disappointment, admittedly very mild, was that Hamelin did not play the Sphinxes movement in any form: no big surprise there, as most pianists simply omit this piece, which is only a series of long notes spelling out some of the letter-coded melodies Schumann used. Still, the possibility of what Hamelin might do with this unnumbered non-movement was tantalizing.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Marc-Andre Hamelin at Strathmore (Washington Post, May 2)

Michael Church, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Queen Elizabeth Hall (The Guardian, April 19)

Ivan Hewett, Marc-André Hamelin, Queen Elizabeth Hall (The Telegraph, April 18)

Erica Jeal, Marc-André Hamelin (The Guardian, April 18)
In honor of the Liszt anniversary, Hamelin ended this recital with Réminiscences de Norma. One of those trashy concert paraphrases, it is the sort of thing that makes one's eyes roll just to see it on a program. Nevertheless, one had hopes that Hamelin might be able to redeem the work, which shows a sincere admiration for Bellini's opera while drowning its melodies in endless scales and octaves. My hopes were dashed, but there was plenty in Hamelin's astounding technique to admire. Hamelin has done much to increase awareness of the extended-serialist works of German-born composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), and he made a more persuasive case for his Passacaglia from Four Studies on Basic Rows. The work had just as many challenges as the Liszt selection, and much more to admire formally. Two encores were no less surprising, beginning with Hamelin's own seventh etude, an arrangement of a Tchaikovsky lullaby: listening to it with one's eyes closed would lead you to admire the individuality of the various voices, an assessment only enhanced when you opened your eyes and saw that he played it with only his left hand. (See and hear for yourself in the video embedded below.) The second encore was the same Busoni elegy played by Jenny Lin the night before.

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