Boston’s essential pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin maintains a brilliant life on the international circuit as concerto soloist, recitalist, miner and recorder of unjustly forgotten repertoire, and as a composer in the piano-virtuoso tradition. His connection with Hyperion recordings has resulted in more than 70 important CDs. Hamelin seems to be doing more chamber music these days (though he always has), in every case finding musicians of stature with whom to partner as equals.
German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser has performed with the world’s leading orchestras. A dedicated chamber musician, Johannes has appeared with Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell and Jonathan Biss, among many others. He is also a regular at the leading festival in Europe and North America. This writer is familiar with the outgoingly masterful cellist’s work; news that he and Hamelin would share the Shalin Liu stage on Sunday augured virtuosic and interpretative fireworks. Both artists think deeply about repertoire and totally engage as they deliver it.
Parisian-Cantabridgian Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of such greats as Grażyna Bacewicz, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti, Virgil Thomson, also knew when to tell mentees when modernism didn’t suit them. Boulanger famously told Astor Piazzolla to be himself and write tangos rather than advanced works. She perhaps followed her own dictates by composing in an exquisitely refined and occasionally original if salonish style herself. Of course she wrote her Three (short and sweet) Pieces for Cello and Piano long before emerging as one of the most important didacts of modernism. We experienced her set as controlled Gallic gentility, sometimes imagining sadly invented songs without words in Moser’s vocal strokes. With signal steadiness he could draw out a diminuendo into something of a ravishing spear. He could join Hamelin in some savage rhythms in the third piece Vite et nerveusement, but could then turn away with a Gallic shrug as Hamelin meandered with chordal reflections. Moser expressively pitched some blue notes: wild slides—never of the emergency variety. He later told us that some call the latter ‘portamento potties.’ In an irresistible accelerando, the artists fast-danced to the finish.
Hamelin asked us to think of his 2016 Four Perspectives for Cello and Piano as questions to which we would supply the answers.
Annotator Sandra Hyslop elaborated:
A well-schooled composer and experienced chamber music pianist, Hamelin knew well how to write effectively for the cello and piano, whose voices could easily overlap and muddy one another. In this 12-minute work, the two instruments engage in a searching dialogue that gives clarity to each voice, with brief clashes when their conversation becomes excited.
The work opens with the cello’s teasing invitation to a conversation. The piano’s voice slowly emerges from the bass, reluctantly, to join in the exchange of musical ideas. Unlike the more traditional forms of Hamelin’s previous compositions, Four Perspectives opens a new sound world—non-tonal and unrestricted by squared-off bar lines. Just as the French maintain great respect for lively conversation in their spoken language (and both Queyras and Hamelin are native French speakers), Hamelin has placed value on the wide-ranging musical language of Four Perspectives. The voices are sometimes in agreement, sometimes challenging one another, as the speakers engage more deeply in their dialogue.
The anxieties of the present day find voice in occasional bursts of nervous humor that punctuate the exchange of ideas. The cohesion of the Four Perspectives relies on Hamelin’s sure sense of creating, from apparent chaos, a fulfilling conversation between inquiring minds and voices.
A raconteurish and lightly Frenchified Hamelin avoided directing us on a discernably linear course. The cello opened with a tentative interrogatory riff to which the piano offered mysterioso meditations as an older observer of the more innocent four-stringer, but Hamelin eventually adopted the cello’s figurations. Then a shriek from the cello signified the onset of the next number. The piano retorted with a blasted bass chord before quieting into some passagework that evoked a distant gamelan, perhaps in Godowsky’s Java. The dense undergrowth then gave way to a clearing of crunchy gravel…another quick cello shriek, then moto-perpetuo angriness shattered … lines parted. Energetic cello sawing contested with chaos in the piano…intertwined passagework perplexities ensued, with as many notes in two minutes as we had heard in the preceding eight. Finally came a quiet stock taking and a vigorous “Warum?” It faded to silence with cello air pizzes.
After the short piano introduction in Debussy’s evergreen, valedictory Cello Sonata, Moser’s 1687 Guarneri steeped the house in very expensive-sounding resonance in piously asked questions with a singer’s espressivo and enunciation. The players resolute intensity raised every gesture into formidable realms. The partners intellectually architected form while embracing visceral passion.
Gnomelike qualities obtained, and effects included a gliss of seemingly more than two octaves. And Moser enlivened those (relentless in other hands) pizzes with varying degrees of vibrato stretching at times into mini portamentos. Colors and emotions filled the house with fully found power and communal enterprise.
Arrangers have adapted its original violin part for cello, viola, flute, and who knows what else, because the Franck Sonata can bring down any house. It has been doing so without fail since its publication in 1886. The Harvard Musical Association Archives shows it tied for most-performed work (at 22 performances since 1892) with Beethoven’s op. 69 Cello Sonata and Chopin’s op. 60 Barcarolle. [For the record, Debussy’s Cello Sonata is tied for fifth place at the Association (19 times) with Chopin’s B Minor Sonata]
Hamelin’s liquid opening notes and Moser’s aria-like cello effusiveness at once signaled a traversal that would erase all doubts as to whether we wanted to hear it again. The two individuals gave breath to incredible poetic artistry. Moser’s cello had been saving something special for 397 years for this occasion, or so it sounded. Hamelin drew ever-warm and handsome tones from the adolescent Steinway. I couldn’t bear to take notes, so I put down my pen and let the sounds wash over me.
Enthusiasts should plan a trip to Fort Worth Texas next March when Hamelin and Moser will reprise this exact program. They are also inked for this show in Columbus Ohio, Vancouver and Baltimore in April.
OK old friends, please come back next time with the rare arrangement (that I sent you) of the Franck’s D Minor Symphony. (Note: This is a convoluted disclosure of my connections to these people.)
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer