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'Fearsome songs of ancient Chaos': Hamelin in College Park

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N. Medtner, Complete Piano Sonatas / Forgotten Melodies, M.-A. Hamelin
(Hyperion, 1998)

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Debussy, Images / Préludes (Book 2), M.-A. Hamelin
(Hyperion, 2014)

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R. Rimm, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight
(Amadeus Press, 2003)
A recital by Marc-André Hamelin may leave you breathless. The technical achievement, to be sure, will be awe-inspiring, but few other pianists can so easily convince a listener of the merits of music they likely do not know well, if at all. Washington has been blessed with a large number of recitals from Hamelin in the last few years, the latest of which was at the Clarice Smith Center on Sunday afternoon, to kick off the 50th anniversary celebrations for the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland. In a post-intermission chat with IPAM's curator, Donald Manildi, Hamelin reminisced about his father's contact with the Archives in its first decade, as well as his own research association with the institution over the years.

The first half of this excellent recital was focused on Russian obscurities, beginning with two of Samuil Feinberg's short piano sonatas from the World War I years. Feinberg was one of the eight composer-pianists covered in Robert Rimm's book on the subject, a tradition in which Rimm included Hamelin, who plays his own inimitable pieces from time to time. Three of those composers (Rachmaninov, Medtner, and Scriabin), Feinberg once said (as quoted by Rimm), "were wonderful composers who came to their pianism through their own composition." One senses the same mechanism at work in Feinberg's music -- and in Hamelin as well -- in the meandering, longing melody of the second sonata (A minor, op. 2) buried almost beyond recognition in tangles of figuration, for example, or the extravagant harmonic vagaries of the first sonata (A major, op. 1). Hamelin voiced the melody of the second sonata with great care, making a right-hand raindrop-like motif shower over it.

These shorter works were paired with the mammoth second sonata of Nikolai Medtner (E minor, op. 25), a piece Hamelin also played at his Kennedy Center recital in 2013. Subtitled "Night Wind" after the poem of that title by Fyodor Tyutchev, it is a work of fearsome pianistic challenges, realized tempestuously in often thunderous cacophony by Hamelin, but it seduces because of the driven sense of melody and form. The piece never wanders, as Feinberg seems to do at times, at least not in Hamelin's hands.

Hamelin also played Book 1 of Debussy's Images again, and the interpretation was better than how I remembered it in his 2013 recital at Shriver Hall. Here the second movement (Hommage à Rameau) had much more rubato than I recalled and yet a greater delicacy, while the first movement (Reflets dans l'eau) still startled with its aquatic transparency, and the third (Mouvement) had an ultra-fast but still finely etched quality.

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Patrick Rucker, A performance to restore the virtue of ‘virtuoso’ (Washington Post, October 6)
Sheer virtuoso display came out in the last piece, Liszt's Venezia e Napoli, from the Italian year of Années de pèlerinage. Hamelin took the barcarolle of the first movement (Gondoliera) at a leisurely tempo, tickling the ear with the many lacy figurations and trills of the right hand. Somehow the insistent tremolos of the second movement, at times almost like a furiously strummed mandolin accompanying the song -- an aria from Rossini's Otello -- managed not to sound hokey, and the Tarantella of the third movement provided the necessary ignition to fuel a bacchanal of encores. (Another outrageous Liszt concert paraphrase, Réminiscences de Norma, served the same purpose in Hamelin's 2011 recital at Strathmore.)

In response to enthusiastic ovations, Hamelin generously offered four encores, beginning with the first of Earl Wild's Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs, based on George Gershwin's song Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away). This was followed by Liszt's arrangement of Chopin's song My Joys, Godowsky's mind-blowing transcription of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude for the left hand alone (!), and The Punch and Judy Show, a madcap miniature by Eugène Goossens (embedded below).

The next recital in the series honoring IPAM will feature Orion Weiss (December 3), at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.

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