If you ever attend a performance by Marc-André Hamelin, and he gives some last second apology/excuse for not performing the piece you were looking forward to hearing most, because of his charm, you’ll not only fall for said excuse, but you will also feel guilty for having discomforted him in any way with any of your petty expectations. If history repeats, you’ll be in for something special in exchange. But I get ahead of myself.
For the Boston Celebrity Series event at Jordan Hall on Saturday night, Hamelin had scheduled an evening of sonatas, though (since not all Classical) the term could be applied loosely. To start: a little Haydn hiding in front of some big, tumultuous Beethoven, with two unfamiliar single movement works of Samuil Feinburg sandwiched between. After intermission, it was to be Scriabin’s White Mass Sonata (another single movement work), then Chopin’s 2nd (though written first) B-flat Minor Sonata.
Speaking of expectations, those familiar with Hamelin’s now benchmark double-CD albums (three of ‘em) of Haydn were pretty sure he would deliver. He did. Baroque-like filigree in the Andante to the Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48 discoursed with full freedom over a finely regulated rhythmic pulse: light drama balanced with wit, and a consistent projection of nearly all minor (read: darker) material at a much bigger volume (read: giving structure). A variety of piano attacks (lyrical, sharp, rich, pin-pricky, layered (read: pedaled) came with choreography: that elegant wrist-turn of his; use of a single finger to play a series of quickly ascending notes; two pronged fingers to deliver a series of precisely hammered tiny stabs of ascending thirds in similar fashion. The Rondo: Presto was bouncy, and fun. Musical appetites were whetted, tonal palates at attention.
Which was good, because the two short sonatas, first No. 2 then No. 1, by Samuil Feinburg deserved our attention. With the start of the 2nd Sonata, Hamelin displayed his only nerves of the evening. Some hesitation and shrouded playing of the opening phrases didn’t detract much, though, from the mood he seemed to wish to establish, which was, well, somewhat shrouded, under-watery, and hesitant. A four-note theme, continually evident, cycled downward across the keyboard. Beautiful sonorities that seemed almost anti-Prokofievian came too. Quite a mood shift from Haydn.
Hamelin rendered the 1st Sonata with rich rubato (read: stretching phrases like taffy), and ultra-Romanticisms. [It’s interesting to hear his performance of these works on YouTube while watching the score: the elasticity so much more apparent, seeming almost excessive, while live and score-free, it seemed just right.] Knowing so little about this composer, sometimes he (or Hamelin channeling Feinburg) sounded like Scriabin influenced by Satie, Debussy, Ravel (distillate notes sparkling out of a rich, woven texture), and Rachmaninoff (distillate notes sparkling out of a rich, woven texture, but not like Ravel). The work grew more virtuosic, ending huge, with Hamelin somewhat self-indulgently stabbing the final chord.
Beethoven’s deceptive straightforwardness can mean that so much of his musical persona gets lost in recording translation. Hamelin’s very live performance of the Appassionata made for some real excitement, and pace. The Allegro Assai was appropriately muted, before the Jekyll/Hyde tantrums ensued (to be fair: even Jekyll was never in good spirits here). Violent extremes were pronounced, as was the hemiolaic (two against three) rhythmic warring between musical personalities.
Hamelin has a signature propensity to exaggerate dotted rhythms (dum….da’dum, dum….da’dum). In this piece, there is the danger that if the “dum” after the “da” is not accented more than the “da,” the “da” sticks out (seems louder), making for a weird syncopation. That did occur to some degree, but because Beethoven tosses us about in so many rhythmic vortexes in this work it hardly mattered, and Hamelin was so perfectly consistent in his interpretation that the slightly accented “da effect” became a character in itself. (And, to be fair, most interpreters do some of the same, overemphasizing the “da” before the beat. The opposite is more detrimental: overemphasizing the beat, to make for thunky, plodding un-mysterious music.)
Though the less intense 2nd theme might have benefited from a little more relaxed singing, this was not what Hamelin had in mind. He drove relentlessly reaching something assertive, downright demonic in the opening movement, and especially in the coda (big chords on tectonic display), until dying away, as softly as he had started.
The short Andante variations provided calm and lyrical relief. To start, Hamelin had the upper line voiced on solo display, a lovely effect. As the music developed rhythmically through the variations, an underlying pulse kept everything just barely grounded while seeming to float along, until all hell broke loose. The precise hammering of those intro chords to the perpetual-mobile-like final movement was a clue. We were in for a ride.
The last movement was, in a word, thrilling. How could Hamelin articulate those mini-arcs of sound with such color, speed and clarity, micro-cushions of time between each note? Mini-arcs became waves, then avalanches of controlled sound, with a tense ebb and flow (drama unfolding) up to an even more exhilarating Presto coda. Amazing stuff!
The Scriabin Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, “White Mass,” was virtuosic throughout, but not showy, the work launching big and jagged, full of mystery and color, and full of bizarre trills and sonorities. Built on a descending five note idea that begins to haunt, then seems to develop something of a head and a tail, this is music of a strange realm, but much less strange than it might be, with Hamelin as tour guide, so much in his comfort zone.
How would the Chopin have fared following the Scriabin? Who cares (and no one loves Chopin any more than I)? We got the Schumann op. 17 Fantasie instead! And boy, thirty-some minutes later, were we grateful.
This was hardly a salon-style performance, rather one suited for concert halls. Hamelin held his big beautiful, soaring sonorities and outpourings of emotion in check through intellect and clear conception. There came points in the opening movement where he would articulate slight pauses between slowing notes with his entire frame. Rapture and passion, wrapped in logic, or vice versa? No matter. He unfolded deliciously differentiated but clearly linked musical ideas. His Rubenstein-like ability to convey a crescendo within a single note or chord at the piano also seemed to happen. That’s impossible of course, but what wonderful illusion.
The 2nd movement galloped as a tour-de-force, in which he made many inner dialogues manifest, between and within piano registers. And what astonishing balance and power did he achieve in those inside-out jumping octaves at the end (the pianist’s most advanced instance of an Olympian breast stroke, one could say) of this visual and sonic feat and feast. He held the final chord for nearly half a minute until sound had almost entirely dissipated, allowing for no break between this and the final movement.
The finale unfurled something intimate, freshly original, and achingly tender. So slow it was, with so many nuanced pauses. Since we were not to hear any Chopin this evening, this movement seemed Chopin-esque enough, though I can’t pinpoint why. I thought of the Chopin Sonata in B Minor 3rd movement, which, while not as epic as the Schumann, is grand and eloquent all the same. Chopin’s op. 27, no. 1 Nocturne, a mini-epic in itself, perhaps also came to mind, because in it, Chopin seems already to have come to terms, with the inevitable. Hamelin rendered this last movement of the Fantasie as an “epic farewell.” Loads of rubato, pauses, foggy sections of pedaling, warmth and poignancy came in each carefully wrought moment. This music-making was at once aristocratic, joyous, and so sad. So memorable, too.
A huge ovation demanded an encore. A showpiece would have come across as awkward. Hamelin, instead, gave us Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat, D. 935/II, interpreted in his own time; he extended the first note of each beat beyond what seemed reasonable, and nearly removed the second note from the audible realm, but of course it worked. More sadness, and what felt like heartbeats.
We would get a showpiece, next, but in the form of the corny, delightful, charming Moritz Moszkowski’s Waltz in E Major, Op. 34, No. 1. Almost never heard today, it was played in concert halls everywhere nearly a century ago. Frilly entry material makes way to lovely fluff (picture rhinoceroses—albeit deft, agile rhinoceroses —in tutus in a choreographed underwater ballet). There were several moments of sheer hilarity as Hamelin would arc his left hand over the right and bring one extended finger gently down to end a phrase with a quiet ringing tone. Fluff gave way to some serious (in the difficult rather than musical sense of the word) pyrotechnics, and then the waltz became massive. No water remained in the pool when the proud, happy rhinos took their bows. A perfect ending to an awesome evening.