in: Reviews

December 9, 2013

Hamelin’s Heart and Hands

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On Sunday the Celebrity Series of Boston continued its 75th-anniversary season with the first of three concerts celebrating “The Art of the Piano” featuring supervirtuoso Marc-André Hamelin. NEC’s Jordan Hall was the venue for a solo recital in which Hamelin brought his trademark technique and economical, no-nonsense delivery to bear on three evocations of water and wind.

Hamelin opened with the Boston premiere of his own Barcarolle, composed this year and described in the program notes as “a composition that evokes the Venetian gondolier, the stroke of his oar, and the gondola’s smooth glide over the water.” The work is loaded with atmosphere and color, opening with rumbling octaves in the bass, and rolled chords in the treble, suggesting a slowly rocking gondola with water splashing on its sides. This nine-minute work exploited a variety of other fiendishly difficult pianistic tricks to suggest the effects of this gondola on the flow, rippling, and splashing of the narrow canals. Hamelin rarely played louder than pianissimo, but showed astonishing control and fluidity of technique. It was an impressive display, even if the gondola doesn’t seem to arrive anywhere.

Nicolai Medtner’s Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 was the last in the Russian tradition of pianist-composers with prodigious techniques and a Romantic approach to composition. This sonata is remarkably conservative, considering it was written in 1911, the year of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. It is nicknamed “Night Wind,” after Fyodor Tyutchev’s poem used as an epigraph to the score. (You can read the complete poem in Frank Jude’s translation as poem #113 here.) The poem begins:

Why do you howl, night wind?
Why do you complain insanely?
Your voice is strange. What does it mean?
First muffled, pitiful, then loud?

This paean to sleeping storms of chaos inspired an effusive one-movement paradox of a piano sonata, discursive with a range of melodic ideas, knuckle-busting piano techniques, yet with some structure in the way material recurs and develops. Hamelin tossed off all the work’s difficulties with a remarkable economy of effort, with forearms and wrists moving minimally through a range of crossed-hand figures, elaborate curlicues decorating slower-moving principal tunes without ever drowning them out, playing in complex meters with cross rhythms, fiendish octaves and scales. Many elements in the Medtner led me to wonder if Hamelin’s Barcarolle was some kind of deconstruction of the sonata. Where there were swirls and eddies of water in the Barcarolle, here there was the flexibility of beat and pianistic filigree evoking a dark, cold, unpredictable wind. In both works, I had difficulty following the composer’s argument; they seemed more evocations than stories, with the Medtner taking a full half hour to go through its various permutations. And in some ways, Hamelin’s sovereign technique may be his musical shortcoming in this sonata. The fact that he never sounds ruffled or out of control seems at odds with this “tale of madness.” Try Boris Berezovsky (a sample here) for an even wilder, woolier, almost unhinged approach to Medtner that strikes me as more fitting; less an idealized dream of a night wind and more a drunken nightmare. Personally, I prefer my life to be more idealized dream, my music recitals more like drunken nightmares.

Hamelin concluded with Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960, harnessing his enviable technique to deeply considered musical ends. The first movement opened at a relatively brisk clip, but with an old school Romantic pianist’s flexibility of tempo, and making generous use of the pedal to sustain Schubert’s harmonies. I loved the effect, though it’s hardly a literal reading of the score. He could play Schubert’s three-part textures, with a rolling bass line and intricate, shaped and specific accompaniment figures which showed lots of detail but never drowned out the delicate long-note tunes at the top. He did a fair amount of stretching and slowing down to prepare the unexpected switches of major and minor, and to mark the major sections of the opening Sonata-Allegro. In the first movement’s colossal exposition repeat, the recurring rumbling bass figure brought forth memories of the Barcarolle and “Night Wind” Sonata that preceded it. The development had more gorgeous moments, like a thrilling acceleration to mark a repeated figure’s increasing harmonic tension, and an unearthly, floating quality to some of the chords played in the highest register of the right hand. He made exquisite use of pregnant pauses, and he did much of this at surprisingly quiet dynamics, taking Schubert’s marked pianissimos to heart, making the fortissimo outbursts all the more shocking.

The slow movement begins with another repeated-note octave figure in the bass, cementing the ties to the other two works in the program. Hamelin’s hushed, yet transparent playing lent a bleak starkness to the opening material, which has always reminded me of the windswept soundscape of Winterreise. For the contrasting middle section of the movement, Schubert moves from pianissimo to piano, then gradually grows and intensifies to mezzoforte, and Hamelin followed the dynamics to the letter, offering a more cheerful and optimistic sound here (though the throbbing, insistently repeating bass note lingered in the ear and reminded us that all is not well). Hamelin played the return of the first section in even starker, bleaker, more restrained fashion, prepared the miraculous shift from C-sharp minor to C major with deft timing, and continued to milk every unexpected shift from minor to major for all they were worth. The audience was spellbound, with nary a cough, cell phone, or shuffle to disturb Hamelin’s hushed magic.

The third movement Scherzo brought out a more relaxed and playful side. The Trio showed a nice contrast of sharply accented, off-beat bass notes and parallel chords in the melody. Again, the ability to separate harmony, complicated accompanying figures at faster-than-average speeds, and tune suggest that Hamelin might make an art song collaborator of genius. In the finale, the opening note played in octaves was remarkably subdued, but every time the piano tried to get melodic material forward, the octave note would pull things back to a restrained dynamic, sort of a center of gravity and a speed bump at the same time. In the development, the playing became plenty loud, but without ever losing control, and I was impressed in one juncture, where each repeat of a figure lost a little momentum and a little energy, yet carried effortlessly into the hall throughout. The work finishes with a crowd-pleasing flourish, and the appreciative audience, loaded with pianists, composers, and aficionados, rose rapidly to its feet.

The two encores: Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water), from the first book of Images) cemented the theme of water and wind in today’s recital. His scrupulous attention to dynamic and shimmering color brought out Debussy’s ripples and reflections to perfection. Then, Hamelin played the Étude in A-flat Major, Op. 1, No. 2, one of two works attributed to Paul de Schlözer (though the stories say he may have won the manuscript from Moritz Moszkowski in a card game and passed off the work as his own). Either way, this study in ludicrously fast and hushed scale figures worked its way up the right hand, then down the left hand, then both hands together, in patterns of increasing complexity until both hands descended in an impossible parallel-third descending chromatic scale. As with everything else, Hamelin tossed it off like it was child’s play.

One curiosity in the programming: the Celebrity Series initially indicated Hamelin would play Schubert’s D.935 Impromptus as the second half of the program; a few weeks ago, this abruptly changed to the D.960 Sonata. I’m glad this change was made; the program as played fit together exquisitely, showed off a few recurring musical themes—not only the hands of a virtuoso’s virtuoso, but the heart of a musician’s musician.

Hamelin will return with a similar recital program to central Massachusetts and Carnegie Hall in the end of January, and he returns to the Celebrity Series with the Brahms Piano Sonata #3 and Brahms’s two-piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet, played with Emmanuel Ax at Symphony Hall on April 13. Then, Hamelin will be joined by violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinettist Martin Fröst for a chamber music concert with a suite from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat and Bartók’s Contrasts, at NEC’s Jordan Hall on Friday, May 2.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

2 Comments

  1. It is bothersome that superb musician Marc-Andre Hamelin’s fine concert should have had an entire side balcony empty, probably, as more than one musicologist/professor/everyday person suggested, because of an unfamiliar repertoire. But what an experience! His own piece was hypnotic; who wanted it to arrive anywhere? — unlike the Medtner, which I would have preferred found shore a bit sooner. Nonetheless, what a treat to hear it, to learn of one more admirer of Rachmaninoff whose name was unfamiliar (to me, at least).

    The key to the entire concert, however, was Hamelin’s technique and musicianship. He seems to delight in dense scores, which he then clarifies and spins into gossamer, like no one else. His playing absolutely pulls his audience into rapt attentiveness. And from our seats, for the first time experiencing the very back row of the balcony, I heard all but two of those delicious pianissimos, and that, probably due more to the age of this scribe. We planned a trip to Germany two years ago around his performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony. Wise move. Lead me to him. Anywhere in the world.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — December 9, 2013 at 12:48 pm

  2. Actually during the first half the audience was pretty evenly distributed left and right, but by intermission it became obvious to everyone on the right side that they were missing something extraordinary by not seeing Mr. Hamelin’s hands.
    Thus the largest massive relocation effort I have ever seen in a concert hall occurred, with everyone who could moving over to the other side of the hall.
    I have also never have attended a concert where such a total silence reigned. Not a single caugh or sneeze was heard during the second half, not even between movements.
    One can only attribute such model behavior to his brilliance. Nobody wanted to miss a single note.
    A truly memorable concert from a phenomenal artist. Cant wait for the next one.

    Comment by Katalin Mitchell — December 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm

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