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In Bordeaux, Hamelin Turns Reflective


Hamelin by Michael Johnson
Hamelin by Michael Johnson

Our own Marc-André Hamelin took Boston to Bordeaux last week, playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 to an enthusiastic audience, most of whom had never heard of him. They are now unlikely to forget him. His super-sensitive performance roused the French to demand three curtain calls before the Mozart encore. Paul Daniel conducted the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine.

Hamelin remains in demand worldwide for his virtuoso performances of piano works both traditional and obscure, but the French have until now been slow to recognize him. His dozens of Hyperion CDs are rarities in the city’s music shops, and not even his French (Canadian) name has been enough to raise his profile.

Now the French seem to be recognizing the error of their ways. The two leading classical music magazines, Diapason and Classica, have selected his three-CD box of Busoni’s late piano works as their piano disc of the year.

I sat down with Hamelin and asked him to look back at his early years, when he was active in contemporary avant-garde music, and to reflect on today’s piano world.

MJ: You studied with Russell Sherman in Boston in your younger years. You may recall that he wrote in his classic book Piano Pieces that the “pedal is the path to heaven” Does this kind of colorful advice flow freely from him?

MAH: I was with him as a private student, some time ago—1987 and 1988—and he brought me much good. And yes, he gets you to make music in ways that are totally unexpected. He is always imagique and he has this soft-spoken way of communicating. I recall hearing him advise me, in relation to part of one Beethoven sonata, to think of being behind columns as Julius Caesar is being murdered. That will bring it out of you.

You have the reputation of uncovering little-known music for some of your CDs and performances. What have you turned up lately?

I feel a little funny about mentioning discoveries because often there are already some recordings out there from the past. I can perhaps refresh some things, or stir the soup with a new version.

You mean your interpretations?

Interpretation is a big word. What I try to do is channel these pieces as I think they should be done, not impose a personal vision. Of course a little bit of my personality will show but hopefully will not stick out too much. That’s not my aim. My aim is to make the composer shine.

Where do you go looking for these underrated composers?

I just have to go into the next room.

You have your own private collection?

Last time we moved I had 83 boxes, all cataloged.

You have had success in your composition efforts, specifically your 12 études. Are you still able to find the time to compose?

Well, my études took so long because there was a gap of 12 years in the middle. I was constantly being asked by friends when I would finish them. Actually I have tons of unfinished things—some which should never see the light I day. But finally I wrote the last three a few years ago and now they are published.

Did you stop performing while finishing off the études?

Oh no. I usually write away from the piano. I can work on a plane, in a hotel room.

Do parts of your compositions come to you in dreams, as Stravinsky claimed of himself?

That happened once. And then a couple of years ago I tried improvising. Then I wrote down the piece as it came out.

Isn’t that a terribly painstaking exercise?

Oh no, I love it. I used software to bring the tempo down to an absolute crawl.

Does contemporary music attract you? Your recordings seem to lean toward the traditional.

Thanks to my father who had a good selection of scores, I was familiar with traditional repertoire at an early age, so my next step (as a young pianist) was composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez, Schoenberg and John Cage. I’m still involved with that period. I played last year in the Cage Centennial event in Miami under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. I even did the famous 4’33”. At one point I was walking across the stage whistling Satie. Among others involved were Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara and Jessye Norman. It was a lot of fun.

I am told Morton Feldman will be on your mind next year as well.

Yes, Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus was supposed to be done in June but I decided to delay it so I could take a break. I have played it once in Toronto and once in San Francisco—in a private house on a very old Steinway to an audience of 30. It will probably be recorded next year.

To pursue the Feldman genre almost seems you are being cast against type. Your reputation rests on virtuosity, does it not?

I don’t know. I’m attracted to extremes. I played the Schubert B-flat in Munich, and it was one of the greatest musical experiences I have ever had.

Yet your discography does not include music from living composers [other than yourself] .

No, going back to contemporary music would be almost like a full-time dedication for me. I don’t just want to do it selectively. Something like Feldman was different. When I sat down to read For Bunita Marcus I was thunderstruck. It’s a self-contained universe. As you’re playing, it becomes obvious nothing else beyond it even exists. To be able to create this is quite miraculous.

Are audiences coming around?

People respond to it differently. I warned one friend he might not like Feldman. After a few minutes he got out his cellphone and started reading the Economist.

People will walk out of performances, no?

It’s hard to walk out on Feldman. He’s so quiet. No, people generally stay. When I played it in Toronto, there were maybe two coughs in 70 minutes. Nobody left the hall.

You complained in a Clavier Companion interview that young players are guilty of histrionics at the keyboard. If this is a trend, how can a controlled player like you compete?

I often wonder…. I must bore some people because I don’t move when I play. Some people take this as emotional detachment but my contention is that one should come to concerts to listen, not to watch. I can assure you that you will not learn anything by watching me. Reproducing my gestures just wouldn’t work. When I watch myself on video, there’s a disconnect between what I see and what I felt at the time. It always looks effortless, like I’m just brushing the keys, but there is force at work, a lot of force.

What CDs are in the pipeline for next year?

The recording and editing have been completed for the Leo Ornstein Quintet with the Pacifica Quartet and another of Shostakovich with Takacs Quartet. A third will be of Mozart piano sonatas.

You are an advocate of broad outside interests in young players. If you think of other things, what might they be?

I don’t consider myself a man of great culture, but if I had somehow never discovered my aptitude for the piano, I might have done something in language—translation, writing. The time we have on this Earth is scandalously short. I make the most of it within my limits.

If your time ran out unexpectedly, what would you want to be remembered for?

I want to leave this earth having been appreciated as a sincere musician, and one who hopefully will have made some sort of a dent as far as repertoire appreciation and expansion is concerned.

Another version of this interview appears on

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who has written on music for the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.


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

  1. I can’t believe that Hamelin is playing Morton Feldman’s music now. I guess Feldman really is becoming mainstream. Incredible.

    Comment by Leonard Feist — December 14, 2014 at 4:10 am

  2. A footnote about that excellent three-disc set of Busoni recordings: it is also reviewed (by me) on Classical Ear, a free app for the iPad and iPhone that (full disclosure) is managed by my daughter and son-in-law.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — December 14, 2014 at 11:24 am

  3. Being played by Hamelin is a sign of being mainstream ? Mainstream like Alkan, Godowsky, Reger, Ornstein, Medtner, Rzewski ? Perhaps if your definition of “mainstream” is “not mid-20th-century avant-garde”. Otherwise this is a preposterous characterization of the work of one of the most eclectic pianists alive.

    Comment by SamW — December 14, 2014 at 11:34 am

  4. Dear Sam W: I’ll ignore the bile in your comment and address the substance.

    Besides Rzewski (point taken) Marc-André Hamelin doesn’t usually venture into the 2nd half of the twentieth century, or into the first 14 years of the 21st. If I’m wrong, I’ll gladly be corrected.

    Hamelin’s approach and repertoire are essentially conservative. Look at his own Etudes, referred to in this article: they fit neatly in the ‘super-virtuoso’ pianist tradition of the past. They could have been written 65 years ago or more. I don’t think many composers writing today would be interested in them, except in terms of the knowledge of the instrument and piano technique they display.

    This is not to take anything away from Hamelin. Further, if you look at the list of pianists who record and perform Morton Feldman’s solo piano music, they don’t usually play Alkan or Godowsky. It’s just not the same crowd, not the same aesthetic. So Hamelin’s interest in Feldman would be like Aki Takahashi or John Tilbury playing Medtner. It isn’t something you come across every day. BMI’s interviewer alludes to this when he suggests Hamelin’s being ‘cast against type’.

    I posit that Hamelin’s ‘eclecticism’ stops circa 1950 (again, with the exception of Rzewski, although the argument could be made that Rzewski, while zany and brilliant, is also an essentially conservative figure).

    Also, Hamelin used to be limited to 19th and early twentieth century repertoire, at least in his recordings. And Hamelin touring this extensively seems to be new: he just wasn’t that well known until recently. He is now even playing Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, the same way that Pierre-Laurent Aimard started playing older, standard piano repertoire as soon as his career got big enough. That is what I mean by “mainstream”.

    Incidentally, I find Aimard disappointing in traditional repertoire like Bach and Mozart, but if you want to play to big provincial halls, you’re not going to do it with Stockhausen.

    Comment by Leonard Feist — December 14, 2014 at 12:19 pm

  5. I don’t disagree with most of what you say, except the choice of the term “mainstream” to designate everything pre-1950 (though Ornstein and Kapustin could be added to your list of exceptions) . This seems to privilege a certain aesthetic (one that I prize highly) as the Only True Alternate Stream. It’s impossible to judge at any one time who is “essentially conservative”; who would have thought in his time that Wagner would one day be considered a reactionary ? There are already those who regard the hyper-organization of Elliott Carter and the early Boulez to be characteristic of a kind of mid-century rationalistic naïveté, the Romanticism of its time. A neo-Nietzche would laugh at them as pedantic schoolmasters who thought they were revolutionaries.

    It’s true that there are many streams that Hamelin hasn’t explored, but he hasn’t exactly been timid. And I don’t think it’s quite fair to attribute venal or careerist motives to him and Aimard as they both having been moving to more standard repertoire. I wouldn’t know, but I would think it reasonable (and admirable) for a young pianist of great ability to say, “well, I’d love to play all that great, familiar stuff, but I can always do that later. First let’s see what else is to be found.”

    Comment by SamW — December 14, 2014 at 1:30 pm

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