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Marc-André Hamelin

available at Amazon
N. Medtner, Complete Piano Sonatas / Forgotten Melodies, M.-A. Hamelin
(Hyperion, 1998)
Music is an ephemeral and mysterious thing, some lines and circles laid out, inert on the page. You know exactly how the thing goes, in theory, because you push the keys in the right order and out comes Schubert's last piano sonata, D. 960. Yet, you do not really know, because the damn thing, elusive in its melancholy brilliance, sounds so different in different hands: Konstantin Soukhovetski (2012), Menahem Pressler (2011), Radu Lupu (2009), Alfred Brendel (2008), Andreas Haefliger (2007), Leon Fleisher (2006). Even with all those earlier performances, and more besides, the rendition by Marc-André Hamelin, heard at his latest Washington Performing Arts Society recital on Monday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, was full of surprises. The change of the Schubert selection to the B-flat major sonata, a monument in the history of keyboard music, came late in the game, but no one was complaining. In an insert added to the program, Hamelin noted joyfully that he would be content if this piece were on every program he played for the rest of his life. That love of this music, causing Hamelin to marvel at "how mysteriously Schubert is able to achieve such spiritual heights through the very simplest of means," came through in how he played it, reverently, with a caressing touch, but also with his signature controlled mastery of touch. The control, though evident upon reflection on the craftmanship of sound, did not make the performance cautious or fussy, though -- it brought it to life.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, At Kennedy Center, Marc-Andre Hamelin doesn’t seem to find anything difficult (Washington Post, November 27)

Michael Roddy, Circus Galop: Canadian Pianist Marc-André Hamelin on Performing, Composing and 'Synethesia' (Reuters, November 14)

Niels Swinkels, Marc-André Hamelin and the Mystery of Human Creativity (San Francisco Classical Voice, November 11)

Ivan Hewett, Marc-André Hamelin, Wigmore Hall, review (The Telegraph, November 5)

Andrew Clements, Busoni: Late Piano Music – review (The Guardian, October 30)

Charles T. Downey, Hamelin @ Shriver Hall (Ionarts, January 29)

Why do you howl, night wind?
Why do you complain insanely?
Your voice is strange. What does it mean?
First muffled, pitiful, then loud?
My heart understands your tongue,
your tale of madness it can't,
and at times you uproot and plow up
frenzied noises in your words!
Don't sing these songs,
these fearsome songs
of ancient Chaos, kindred Chaos!
How avidly the inner soul of night
hears the beloved tale!
It wants to burst from the breast,
it wants to merge with the boundless.
Oh, do not wake the sleeping storms -
Chaos writhes beneath them!
-- Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873)
The first movement's trajectory was, in a sense, laid out in the first eight bars, with Hamelin gently unsettling the tonality with whispered emphasis on the dissonance in the left hand -- the raised fourth scale degree on the downbeat of measure two and the menacing trill on the flat sixth, both half-steps on either side of the dominant. So much of the exposition is marked pianissimo, and Hamelin did exactly that, really crashing down at the little connective material that leads back to the repeat, which made the sudden turn toward C# minor at the development stand out in contrast. The second movement was the most shadowy I have ever heard it, the right hand's melody completely free of the gently crossing left hand, while the third movement seemed utterly unconcerned with the sadness around it, a flighty dance that seemed quite fast, the trio approaching the edginess of tango with its misplaced accents. The fourth movement, whose main theme remains stubbornly in G minor, really until the Presto coda takes us back to the relative major, was driven by its knell-like opening tone, placed just so each time.

An encore seemed unlikely after the Schubert, although Hamelin told an interviewer that he always has "several pieces" prepared and will play them depending on the audience's reaction ("I will play as many as they want, basically" -- perhaps if the audience had insisted more). In retrospect, it was difficult to expect other music to have preceded D. 960 as well, but here was where Hamelin's love of obscure music made the difference. (He told the same interviewer that the piece he has never performed but would most like to is Pierre Boulez's second sonata, which he ranks with D. 960 and Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.) In John Field's short and sweet Andante inédit (E-flat major, H. 64), Hamelin's light touch reminded me of his charming way with the music of Haydn. It was a good balance for the monster that loomed after it, Nikolai Medtner's tempestuous E minor sonata (op. 25, no. 2), known as "Night Wind" because it was inspired by a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev (see the translation in the sidebar). Medtner dedicated the piece to Rachmaninoff, with whose music it has a lot in common, but where Rachmaninoff's tendency toward sentimentality often grates on my nerves, Medtner drowns the ear in contrapuntal complexity, which Hamelin patiently pulled apart into separate strands. Motifs of clanging bells, howling winds, and lost songs are buried in tangles of chromatic vagaries, hand crossings, and impossible technical challenges, as the piece reels drunkenly from poetic reverie to frenzied rapture. WPAS, which had trouble filling the larger hall at Strathmore for Hamelin's last recital, in 2011, learned its lesson, and there were still, to my amazement, empty seats in the much smaller Terrace Theater.

Another great Schubert piece, the Wanderer Fantasy, is the focus of Rob Kapilow's next What Makes It Great? lecture series (December 15, 6 pm), presented by WPAS at the National Museum of Natural History. Following the lecture, pianist Yuliya Gorenman will perform the work in its entirety.

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