in: Reviews

September 19, 2010

Hamelin, Putnam, Ansell, and Reynolds Astound Concord Chamber Music Audience

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Michael Reynolds, Wendy Putnam, Marc-Andre Hamelin and Steven Ansell (Michael King photo)

Concord Academy hosted The Concord Chamber Music Society and the great pianist Marc-André Hamelin for the first concert of its new season on Sunday, September 19. And what an opener it was!

The sold-out concert began with the middle of Beethoven’s magisterial last three piano sonatas, Op. 110 in A-flat, composed in 1821, at the same time as the Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis.  Mr. Hamelin, whose move here is one of the best things to have happened recently to Boston, played it with his usual beauty of tone, thoughtfulness, and musicality. Mr. Hamelin has the reputation of being a virtuoso’s virtuoso, but he is so much more than that, as any one lucky enough to hear him live will notice.  For decades he spent most of his time playing and recording arcane, under-noticed composers — Medtner, Busoni, Goldowsky, Alkan — but recently he has begun playing Chopin, Brahms, Haydn (his two-CD set of Haydn sonatas is terrific), Liszt and Schumann.  In an interview, Mr. Hamelin declared, “I’m not really interested in the piano as an instrument itself… What I care about is what it can do and how it can realize my thoughts, my intentions, the composer’s intentions. I’m always interested in how far I can go to make the audience forget I’m playing a piano or an instrument. I’m just making music.” And his Beethoven was a clear illustration of someone who chose, quite simply, to make music. Mr. Hamelin sits quite still and attracts little attention to himself. His musical conception, dynamics, pacing, and phrasing were ideal. Mr. Hamelin is a musician’s musician.

Next came the rarely performed Violin Sonata in F minor, Opus 80 by Sergei Prokofiev.  The last time I heard it played in the Boston area was over 20 years ago.  Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in D Major is played far more often; it began life as Sonata for Flute, Opus 94, and was rewritten at the urging of the great violinist David Oistrakh, Prokofiev’s friend and chess opponent. Prokofiev described this F minor sonata as “much more serious than the second.” Indeed.  Oistrakh, who championed this work his whole life, played the first and third movements at Prokofiev’s funeral.

The excellent violinist, Wendy Putman, founder and director of The Concord Chamber Players and a member of the BSO, joined Mr. Hamelin in this  dark, brooding, often spooky sonata. They made a case for it being as compelling a work as the more popular, sunny D major. In fact, when you hear a performance like this, you wonder why this piece isn’t played more often. This often eerie sonata consumed Prokofiev for eight years, beginning in 1938. Part of its grimness is undoubtedly attributed to the horrific war years in Russia during which it was written.

After intermission, Brahms’ enormously popular Piano Quartet No. 1 in G-minor, op. 25, was given a rousing yet sensitive performance by Mr.  Hamelin, Ms. Putnam, BSO Principal Viola Steven Ansell, and cellist Michael Reynolds, a member of the BU-based Muir Quartet. The strings sounded beautiful together and perfectly balanced with the piano.  The most popular of the three Brahms piano quartets, the G minor features in its last movement a “gypsy rondo” which inevitably leaves the audience drunk with delight. In his program notes, Steven Ledbetter explains that Haydn had written a gypsy rondo in one of his piano trios, which Brahms undoubtedly knew, as he knew what passed for authentic Hungarian music, “gypsy” musical style. Arnold Schoenberg loved this piece so much he scored it for full orchestra. During the well-deserved standing ovation, I wondered if there was anyone anywhere who didn’t love this piece.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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