Like every great artist Marc-André Hamelin is sui generis. His personal muse has led him on a very circuitous career pathway beginning with a great many works that no one else could play as well as a few that no one else wanted to play. Hamelin’s early fame as a cognoscenti’s pianist came from his performances and recordings of the daunting works of the French-Jewish mystic Charles Valentin Alkan. And that recognition included a contract from Hyperion Records to record anything and everything that Hamelin wished to leave to posterity. The resulting discography is simply astonishing as much for what it contains as what it does not contain — any sonatas of Beethoven or Schubert, for instance. That lapse will no doubt be remedied in time as Hamelin, now in the middle of what one hopes will be a very long career, begins to approach the standard repertoire from his very special perspective.
That he has much to add in this vein is evident from performances I have heard. One of the two most poignant and unforgettably performances of the slow movement from the Schubert B-flat Sonata in my considerable experience was one of his encores at Sanders Theatre in 1999. Hamelin’s former teacher, Russell Sherman, confided to this reviewer that he was deeply moved.
Hamelin brought his singular coloristic genius to a varied program at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Center on June 17. The opener, Haydn’s Sonata no. 53 in e minor showcased both the composer’s wit and the performer’s panache. This was very definitely Haydn on a modern piano, but played with a lightness and fortepiano-like range of dynamics.
Stockhausesn’s Klavierstück IX was premiered in 1962 by the famous pianist-composer Frederic Rzewski. (The latter’s work for solo piano, The People United will never be Defeated, can be heard in a fine performance by Hamelin for Hyperion). That it is based on some arcane mathematical principals did not really interest this listener. Rather, I allowed myself to be absorbed in the chimerical world of colors and subtle shifts of voicings.
It was a testament to Hamelin’s prodigious powers of concentration that he was able to produce gorgeous pianissimos (which only a hall with as quiet a noise floor as Shalin Liu can allow) and dramatic, interpretive moments of silences only to have the spells he created shattered by a veritable small ensemble of buzzing hearing devices (the arrival of the elevator in the balcony during Haydn didn’t help, either). One wondered, after his lucid and transparent reading of the Haydn sonata, if the high-pitched squeals would be noticeable or as distracting in Stockhausen. After all, he was on the cusp of venturing into electronic music. Alas, even here, Stockhausen’s composition left Hamelin exposed to the electronic sounds emanating from the audience.
Please, a plea to RCM audiences and audiences everywhere: if your neighbor is squealing, ask him during the next interval to turn down his hearing device. This is not only a courtesy to the audience but also a courtesy to the performer. Attentive audiences and performers shouldn’t have to suffer through a concert in anxious anticipation of the next buzz, cough, or squeaking of chairs.
Hamelin was born to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. His mastery and originality were striking and his performance, even though it was imagined through a more intellectual prism than one is used to in this work, brought down the house. The perfectionistic craft of Ravel’s composition complemented Hamelin’s often understated style. Because of the restraint he evinced at the opening of “Ondine,” one could almost imagine connections with the preceding Stockhausen. Thus the program order seemed almost inevitable. In “Le gibet,” one’s sense of time completely evaporated because of Hamelin’s ability to remain expressive while keeping an endlessly repeating rhythmic figure perfectly in tempo. In “Scarbo,” he didn’t settle for the empty bravura to which many pianists succumb. Instead, his understanding of texture allowed him to emphasize, in a sea of colors, only the notes and passages that he considered most important.
The regular program concluded with works of the two Liszts: Liszt the Religious and Contemplative—Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude and Liszt the Bombast — Réminiscences de ‘Norma.
Marc-André Hamelin made the most of both.
The encore, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, was introduced by Hamelin as his first public rendition thereof. He needn’t have waited so long. We heard an astonishing performance which sent us into the night feeling quite rewarded.