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MAH: Intellectual and Expressive 

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Marc-André Hamelin (file photo)

Marc-André Hamelin has been renowned for three decades as one of the finest pianists anywhere, not only as an “intellectual” performer with unmatched technique and skill who recovers and reanimates neglected works for solo piano but as one who brings a special thoughtfulness to the standard repertory as well. To watch him at the keyboard is to see a pianist of cool relaxation, poised yet full of concentration, seemingly without visible emotional involvement but with complete passion revealed in the sound that emerges. So it was at Sunday’s recital in the elegant Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, where he has played several times.

Ferruccio Busoni arranged and drastically amplified Bach’s venerable Chaconne from the D Minor Partita for solo violin, treating it essentially as a concert fantasia, closely adhering to Bach’s melodic and formal outlines but enormously inflating the texture with added contrapuntal lines, octave doublings, passage work, and harmonic changes that increase the chromatic load. Busoni was well known for this kind of romanticizing homage to Bach, which he repeated in a dozen or more other arrangements, but the generations that immediately followed came to regard such treatments as excessive and distortive of Bach’s original. Today, audiences and scholars are more willing to welcome transcriptions again as an intellectual challenge. Hamelin projected the different textures with complete authority, from tender-monophonic to thunderous-massive.

Schumann’s Fantasy, op. 17, followed, a great monument unlike any other work in the Romantic literature for piano. The title best applies to the first movement, where Schumann mobilizes an array of wildly different gestures in order to explode the sonata form, leaving the fragments in empyrean piles — indeed, the suppressed subtitle of this movement was Ruinen (“Ruins,” reminding one of Emerson’s quip that “Man is a god in ruins”). I’ve never heard a more moving, sensitive and simultaneously precise traversal of this passionate piece (Durchaus leidenschaftlich und phantastisch vorzutragen), especially on the last page, where the timing in the successive gestures is all-important. The second movement (“Triumphal arch”) and third (“Starry crown”) offer the necessary contrast to the first movement’s fantastic outburst. Together the three movements, as different from each other as could be, make an eternally uneasy whole. Hamelin brought it all together with majesty and humility.

A café treat came in the form of “Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trénet” by Alexis Weissenberg, which Hamelin transcribed from Weissenberg’s recording. Alternately waltzes and foxtrots with boisterously pungent harmony, and plenty of major seconds and chromatic appoggiaturas in the Milhaud-Poulenc manner with whirlwind arpeggios, the set concludes with a fast toccata. If you can imagine Gershwin’s piano rolls spiced with horseradish and cognac, you can get the idea of these sparklers. Weissenberg, a Bulgarian concert pianist chiefly resident in France, and known to American audiences as “Sigi” from his middle name, Sigismond, composed a dazzling Sonate en état de jazz which Hamelin has recorded; he played it at NEC ten years ago.

Cipressi (Cypresses), op. 17, is a short piece by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), an Italian-Jewish composer who fled from the Nazis to Hollywood, where he continued to write elegant tonal concert music while composing extensively for the movies; the Guitar Concerto that he wrote for Segovia in 1939 is still popular. Cipressi (1920) shows influence from Debussy’s pianism and Ravel’s harmony but with an agreeable Impressionist individuality, mounting to two climaxes. One would like to hear other piano works by this prolific neoclassical master, who is still insufficiently known.

Two big works by Chopin completed the concert. The Polonaise-Fantaisie, op. 61, which the composer at first confessed he “didn’t know how to name,” is more fantasy than polonaise, though the favorite Polish rhythm does make itself felt from time to time. Two principal themes predominate, the first one on page 2 and the second in the Poco più lento middle section, only to be summarized in the concluding ff apotheosis, but with mystery and tonal adventure woven in between and throughout; the opening bold gesture, two chords, A-flat minor and C-flat major, is completely forgotten by the time the motif reappears by magic, B major and D major, when the work is already two-thirds over. Hamelin took this at a well-unified pace; the various sections are in a proportional tempo that worked admirably, Allegro maestoso at the pensive beginning and stormy end, and majestic it certainly was. Hamelin’s fortissimo sounded solidly resonant but never percussive; even the final chord struck a perfect bell.

Hamelin’s rendition of Chopin’s E Major Scherzo, op. 54, can only be called magnificent. This most brilliantly improvisatory and imaginatively agile of Chopin’s four scherzos also requires the most delicacy; my friend, the late Arlene Kies, who played all four scherzos in one program, described the feat as “walking on eggs.” This time it was amazing to hear Opus 54 played so effortlessly, but the gossamer style demands it. Coming at the conclusion of a bright afternoon, the two major works from Chopin’s best years reminded us of the cosmic quality of his compositional thought: Chopin the visionary, Chopin seeing beyond the reaches of the Austro-German tradition, which he so much admired, into a world of his own that is no less mighty.

Hamelin gave us a joyful encore, his own Toccata on “L’homme armé.” Because the original popular song, on which two dozen Renaissance composers based cantus firmus masses, has been completely forgotten for five centuries, this composition could have been considered almost a joke, but it has a propulsive drama and a well-wrought moto perpetuo presence. The Toccata had been selected as a required jury piece for the 15th International Van Cliburn Competition two years ago; Hamelin remarked that he was fortunate to have had 33 premiere performances by different young pianists. And proud he should be, as well, for this recital, one of the finest I’ve heard in years.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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