On Sunday, July 11, Marc-André Hamelin was the third solo pianist to explore the beauties of the new Steinway D in the equally new Shalin Liu Performance Center during this year’s Rockport Chamber Music Festival. (The concert was simultaneously broadcast on WCRB-FM.) And what a splendid piano it is. The Shalin Liu Performance Center is fortunate to have acquired an instrument with such clear, melodic bass notes, and high upper register that projects sounds of music rather than wood.
The program comprised romantic, virtuosic works, large and small, by Berg, Liszt, Debussy, and Hamelin himself, with an encore by Leopold Godowsky (“The Gardens of Buitenzorg” from his Java Suite). The program notes by Sandra Hyslop were excellent. All this against a backdrop of the early evening light over Rockport harbor, with gulls diving and soaring above.
To put it colloquially, Hamelin has technique to burn, but that skill is always in the service of a deep musical instinct that creates magical moments of creative expression. He has at his command a broad range of touches, with elegant attention to both attacks and releases, from the tender to the thundering, but always breathing and singing. Each note (and each phrase, also) connects organically to the previous one because he is so in tune with their musical beats.
Hamelin opened with a stunning performance of Alban Berg’s one-movement Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1907/8), written near the end of his studies with Arnold Schönberg but still within the “Romantic” idiom. (Click here to see a Russian edition of the score.) The work reaches its climax in both density and decibels right at the mid-point of its length and slowly spins out to a gentle close, “always expressive,” as Berg directs. Hamelin brought out the complex counterpoint, clearly delineating the rich relationships between the voices, following Berg’s mandate to a T.
Next Hamelin presented the major work of the evening: Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in b minor (1853), also in one movement. (Click here to see a first edition of the score.) At 30 minutes, it is twice as long as the Berg, but I don’t think anyone noticed: the packed audience was spellbound. Hamelin gave his first performance of this extremely difficult work in Boston at the Harvard Musical Association in February, 2009, remarking beforehand that he was glad critics would not be in attendance. It certainly was ready for critics in Rockport, and he will be performing it next season in Montréal, Munich, and Frankfurt. (You may read a brief review of, and download his performance at the WGBH studios on April 14th here.) Even so, when he sat down, there seemed to be a significant pause and a deep breath before he brought his hands to the piano to play the first notes: a single G in staccato octaves down from the G below middle C — a strange beginning for a piece in b minor. The G functions as a poignant appoggiatura to F# (the dominant), but the tonic resolution (B) never quite arrives until near the end, after a long, strongly articulated fugue ostensibly in G-flat major, although the ear can’t tell the difference between a piano’s G-flat and F#: the piece cadences in a dense, extended B major (6/4) chord built above F#. Liszt thus withholds the root until the very end, in the form of a single soft staccato low B, a transformation of the opening, and an incredibly simple resolution. Hamelin was clearly aware of this long shape, and provided quiet momentum through the many pauses, elaborate recitativos, changes in color, density, form, and sounds, to create a meaningful whole, not an easy accomplishment even beyond the technical difficulties.
Hamelin must have known that no more intensity at this level could follow after intermission. By immediate contrast he presented three of Claude Debussy’s Preludes from Book II (1911-1913), nos. 4, 11, and 12, respectively: “Les fées sont exquisses danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers),” “Les tierces alternées (Alternate thirds),” and “Feu d’artifice (Fireworks).” The fairies danced as lightly and fast as possible, just as Debussy directs in the score; the thirds pummeled each other playfully up and down the keyboard (“moderately animated,” just as Debussy says), and the fireworks ranged from sparklers to huge glissandos, and back again to individual notes dying away in the night over a low rumble of resonance. Hamelin performed them at the same time brilliantly, delightfully, and respectfully.
Debussy’s Preludes themselves provided a kind of precursor to well-chosen selections from Hamelin’s own Twelve Études in All the Minor Keys (1984-2009): in performance order, no. 8, “Erkönig (after Goethe )”; no. 3, “D’après Paginini-Liszt (La Campanella)”; no. 7, “Étude after Tchaikovsky (Lullaby, op. 16, no. 1) for the Left Hand”; no. 11, “Tango”; and no. 12, “Prélude and fugue.” (All will be published this fall in a score edition by C. F. Peters and a recorded performance by Hyperion.) They are indeed studies, and involve huge technical hurdles simply because Hamelin is capable of them, as for example when he sets up competing rhythmic and melodic material within the same phrases. The last is the longest and most difficult. But difficulty is not the point as in some others’ études; rather Hamelin is studying isolated works of the composers named in the sense of capturing, or releasing their spirits. Indeed, Hamelin’s exhilarating powers do speak to the potential of the human spirit in all of us.