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Masterful Brahms from Hamelin + Ax


Marc AndreHamelin and Emanuel Ax (Robert-Torres photo)
Marc-Andre Hamelin and Emanuel Ax (Robert-Torres photo)

When Boston’s Symphony Hall was completed, legendary Boston Herald music critic Philip Hale apparently suggested that an emergency egress be labeled, “Exit in case of Brahms.” Hale would surely have been horrified to see a capacity crowd fill Symphony Hall for a glorious all-Brahms program as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston’s 75th anniversary celebration of “The Art of the Piano” with Marc-André Hamelin and Emanuel Ax.

Hamelin began the program with Brahms’s largest solo piano work, the Piano Sonata #3 in F Minor, Op. 5. This was his final solo piano sonata, but written when Brahms was just twenty. It may be the most thankless 19th century masterwork to play, loaded with fiendish technical challenges, but with a cerebral Romanticism which is light on the crowd-pleasing razzle-dazzle or naked emotion of more popular pianist-composers. Hamelin made his name with knuckle-bustingly impossible repertoire like Alkan and Godowsky. In the first program of his three-part “Art of the Piano” series (review here), I extolled the virtues of his Schubert playing. Those qualities were on display again, making for one of the finest Brahms Sonata performances I’ve ever heard. The clarion octaves that start the first movement and the demonic waltz of the third movement Scherzo were delivered with thunderous power and enviable clarity. But most impressive was Hamelin’s dynamic control, layering different voices at different volumes so that broken lines alternating between left and right hand could be articulated clearly, while preserving the line in each individual hand. And for all the fire and brimstone of the first and third movements, the second movement Andante opened with gorgeous hushed pianissimo playing, making for an ethereal, floating sound world that made the bass note intrusions in the beginning of the movement and the ecstatic outbursts of the movement’s end all the more shocking. The fourth movement Intermezzo, subtitled “Remembrance,” brought out bits stolen from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata and the fate motif from the Fifth Symphony, and showed Hamelin’s strategic use of space and silence. Hamelin tore through the infernal fifth movement Finale, tossing off fusillades of densely packed piano writing with impressively economical motion. In sum, Hamelin handled Brahms’s technical challenges with characteristic effortless aplomb, but it was his remarkable soft playing, his knack for pacing and his grasp of larger-scale structures that made this sprawling Sonata hang together and drove it with the force of inevitability.

After an intermission, Hamelin returned with Ax for Brahms’s Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor, Op. 34b. This is a work whose genesis was tortured even for Brahms; it began as a two-cello string quintet, but was felt to be too big for strings alone, was transformed into this Sonata, then into the Piano Quintet, Op. 34. Every step along the way, Brahms agonized and fussed with his material; the autograph manuscript of the score (viewable here) shows the composer repeatedly reassigning material between the Primo and Secondo piano parts. And even the final Quintet is not a straight fleshing out; much of the piano part is heard in the Primo part, and much of the string quartet in the Secondo part, but as Brahms adapted, he switched material between Primo and Secondo lines.

For this performance, Hamelin took the Primo part, playing with the piano lid on full stick. Ax played the Secondo part, facing Hamelin at a lidless instrument. The result was more or less what you would expect from this dream team pairing. Both are self-effacing pianists with technique to burn, each with a deep commitment to sensitive and responsive chamber music playing. Together, the pair matched each other step for step through a variety of beautifully controlled dynamics, lavished loving attention on little details like a nagging bass dissonance near the end of the exposition of the second movement, handed off arpeggio figures and delighted in the crossed rhythms of the third movement Scherzo, and beautifully evoked the shifting, searching instability of key and rhythm that opened the fourth movement Finale, then built a gradual but unstoppable momentum before the breakneck coda brought the work to an abrupt end, and an enthusiastic standing ovation. As fine as the performance was, though, I’m not completely convinced by this arrangement of the work. There are moments where the two piano version works more effectively; the opening of the slow movement sounds even more like a gently rocking lullaby, and there’s a thrill to the jagged rhythms, sharp dynamic contrasts, and swift shifts from foreboding to exultant in the Scherzo. But for the most part, Brahms’s two piano version sounds strangely homogeneous, and without the variation of texture that comes from four strings, one can feel a little hammered down after half an hour of doubled fortissimo piano chords. It’s also possible that the effort to make the sound project to the back rows of Symphony Hall, the performance was robbed of the intimacy it might have had in a smaller space.

These quibbles aside, the playing was magnificent. Marc-André Hamelin is a treasure, and one to be cherished all the more because he remains a local treasure. We can be grateful to the Celebrity Series for giving Hamelin three concerts to show his stuff; while the first program has been repeated all over the world, Sunday’s program will be heard in Boston alone, Hale be damned.

Hamelin’s “Art of the Piano” concludes on Friday, May 2 at Jordan Hall with violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinettist Martin Fröst for a chamber music including a suite from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat and Bartók’s Contrasts. Ax returns in early August, with more Brahms chamber music with Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma, and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto at Tanglewood.

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 [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a concert! This was my first time hearing Mr. Hamelin live, and he just impressed me beyond words as a pianist. He’s the real deal, and based on a small sample size (n=1), he can be legitimately spoken of in the same sentence as Martha Argerich, Kissin, and Zimerman. The first half of the program was astounding. Hamelin’s performance of the 3rd sonata was some of the finest solo piano playing I’ve ever heard. I marvelled at his ability to create a soundscape that was astonishing and far from routine. His control of dynamics, coloring, and shading was masterful. His playing was sensitive, profound, and moving. There are not enough superlatives…

    However I was much less impressed than Mr. Liu with regards to the two-piano sonata on the second half of the program. There’s no nice way to say it–I just feel Emmanuel Ax was the wrong choice for a partner here. Mr. Ax is well known to be a wonderful colleague and a kind and generous person, but he’s not even close to being in the same league a pianist as Mr. Hamelin, and I thought he really diminished the overall performance of the sonata. And Mr. Liu, I believe you are in error, it was Mr. Ax playing the primo part and Mr. Hamelin the secondo. I have to admit, after the concert I went home and put on my recording of Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein playing this magnificent work. In the hands of the right performers, I believe there’s a knockout case for not only the work itself, but for this particular incarnation of it (as compared to the Piano Quintet).

    What I’ll remember about Sunday afternoon’s tremendous concert was the profound and incredibly moving performance of the Brahms Sonata #3, and that Marc-Andre Hamelin is a performer I want to hear again and again.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 15, 2014 at 6:02 am

  2. I heard that Hamelin is a super technician … have been hesitating on getting his Scriabin …

    And I happened to heard this on NPR
    SAGAL: One last question. You’re a classical pianist. You’ve spent your life as a classical pianist. Do you and your colleagues think the word pianist is as funny as we do?
    AX: Actually I often say PIANO PLAYER.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 23, 2014 at 5:19 pm

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