It is always a pleasure to visit the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, whether I am performing on its stage or sitting in the audience. My visit on Saturday night, June 13, was no exception. First I treated myself to some of Tuck’s salt-water taffy, and then I was treated to Marc-André Hamelin’s masterful solo piano recital.
Hamelin began with Haydn’s Variations for Piano in F minor, Hob. XVII/6, a composition written during the period when Haydn was traveling to London, where he finally received the adulation and recognition he so richly deserved. These variations, with not one but two themes and a sophisticated treatment of harmony and form, reveal an established composer in his 60s moving in a new direction, one that would ultimately produce The Creation; it would also influence the variation technique of Haydn’s recalcitrant student Beethoven. Hamelin followed the Variations with a large-scale performance of Mozart’s great Sonata in A minor, K. 310, and the program included a lovely rendition of Fauré’s Nocturne in D-flat major, op. 63, no. 6. The highlights of the evening, however, were two virtuoso showpieces: Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli from the second book of his?Années de pèlerinage (“Years of Pilgrimage”), and Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano, Op. 39. These are not only wonderful pieces of music, but they also have fascinating stories to tell.
The Années de pèlerinage were indeed pilgrimages, but hardly of the religious kind. Rather, they were written after Liszt had moved to Switzerland from Paris in order to escape a romantic scandal of Romantic-era proportions. In 1832 the 22-year-old Liszt had become involved with Countess Marie d’Agoult, a wealthy married woman six years his senior with two daughters. They met secretly throughout 1833 and 1834 in Liszt’s tiny apartment in Paris they called “the rat hole,” but after the death of Marie’s six-year-old daughter in 1835 they became full-time lovers. Their relationship would last 12 years and produce three children, including Cosima, the future wife of Richard Wagner.
Despite the circumstances of their escape from Paris, Liszt and Marie seem to have enjoyed Switzerland. He taught, performed and composed, including an Album d’un voyageur that evokes the sights and sounds of the Swiss countryside; this would later be reworked as the “Swiss” volume of the Années de pèlerinage. The couple later traveled to Italy (Cosima was born in Bellagio), this “pilgrimage” inspiring Liszt to compose the “Italian” volume of his Années de pèlerinage. Hamelin’s “Gondoliera” took us on a gentle Gondola ride along the shimmering waters of a Venetian canal, and the wild dance rhythms of the “Tarantella” literally brought the audience to its feet.
Liszt’s contemporary Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was as much of a virtuoso as the great Hungarian pianist, and perhaps even greater, but he could not have been more different as a person, a pianist or a composer. A religious and observant Jew, Alkan was a child prodigy who won the premier prix at the Paris Conservatoire for piano in 1824, harmony in 1827, and organ in 1834. His career started out with great promise and optimism — the noted critic Fétis described him as “cheerful, outgoing and confident” in 1833 — but Alkan soon began to exhibit the personality quirks that would dominate the remainder of his life: he was shy, eccentric, a hypochondriac and a misanthrope. Alkan ultimately withdrew from the concert stage, held no teaching positions, and even disappeared completely from view for long stretches. Nevertheless, he wrote some of the most original, virtuosic and sometimes bizarre piano music in the literature. The Symphonie for Solo Piano from the Concerto, op. 39 is a prime example. Its technical demands are indeed substantial—no problem for Hamelin—but there is also a richness of musical expression to be discovered in this and many Alkan works. Hamelin found this as well.
I look forward to my next visit to Rockport, for fine music-making and some more good taffy.