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Hamelin: Perfect Mechanics and Soul


Marc-Andre Hamelin (file photo)

Whenever Marc-Andre Hamelin—possessor of the universe’s most spectacular piano technique —plays, I do my best to show up…even in the wilds of Worcester. On Thursday evening at Mechanics Hall, he delivered an extraordinary concert I will not soon, if ever, forget.

In recognition of the composer’s 150th birthday, Hamelin opened with a piece he adores. Charles Ives’s massive (and massively virtuosic) Second Piano Sonata Concord, Mass. 1840-1860 paints impressionistic pictures of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in its outer movements, provides a playful and gentle sketch of the Louisa May Alcott home, and reflects a lighter side of Nathaniel Hawthorne through a ragtime scherzo. The “Thoreau” movement includes a flute part representing the writer’s meditations at Walden Pond. According to Ives biographer Jan Swafford, “The Alcotts” was created from a 1904 sketch of an Alcotts Overture, “Hawthorne” came from a 1909 idea based on the writer’s “The Celestial Railroad,” and “Emerson” developed from Ives’s 1907 idea of an Emerson Overture/Piano Concerto. He had been piecing these ideas together for Men of Literature, which evolved into the Concord Sonata.

The sonata’s four movements demonstrate Ives’s experimental tendencies: he wrote much of it without barlines, the harmonies are advanced, and in the second movement, there is a cluster chord created by depressing the piano’s keys with a piece of wood as well as clusters marked “Better played by using the palm of the hand or the clenched fist.” The piece also amply demonstrates Ives’s fondness for musical quotation (especially Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’s opening, which occurs in all 4 movements.

John Kirkpatrick, who premiered the sonata, received the score from Ives, but would still not meet him for another 6 years (despite living only one hour apart!). After the pianist gave his famous Town Hall performance in New York City in 1939, he began collaborating with Ives on a second edition. Kirkpatrick recorded it for Columbia records in 1945 (it would not be released until 1948), and again in 1968. Kirkpatrick played the Concord Sonata hundreds of times in concert and found that it remained fresh no matter how long he studied it. Later in life he didn’t say that he was “playing” the “Concord,” he said that he was “playing at it.”

In an exchange with Ives, Elliott Carter asked

….why the notation of the Concord Sonata was so vague, why every time [Kirkpatrick] played it, he did something different, sometimes changing the harmonies, the dynamic scheme, the degree of dissonance, the pace… He said that he intended to give only a general indication to the pianist, who should, in his turn, recreate the work for himself… This improvisational attitude toward music… affects all of Ives’s more mature works… In his compositions, the notation of a work is only the basis for further improvisation, and the notation itself… is a kind of snapshot of the way he played it at a certain period in his life.(Carter, Elliott (1977). The Writings of Elliott Carter. Indiana University Press).

Regarding the “Emerson” movement, Ives wrote to Henry Cowell:

I find that I do not play or feel like playing this music even now in the same way each time… Some of the passages now played have not been written out, and I do not know as I ever shall write them out as it may take away the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow and feeling that it is not finished and the hope that it never will be – I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it.” (Cowell, Henry and Sidney (1955) “Charles Ives and his Music”).  

Hamelin’s extraordinary performance often sounded maniacally improvisatory, but here (and in the rest of the program) his intensely focused rendition astonished with its mercurial colors, sudden mood shifts, and technical wizardry. His hymn-like opening of the third movement, “The Alcotts,” was this listener’s favorite part, although the audience seemed to love every one of its 45 minutes. Having heard the Concord on several good recordings, I must insist that if a person gets to hear this live, it is infinitely more compelling. Who would have thought this often-craggy sonata could steal one’s heart?

After intermission, Hamelin treated us to his Mazurka; it had premiered a few weeks ago at the Library of Congress, which commissioned it. Dedicated to a close friend who had passed away recently, it immediately rose to one of my favorites among the pianist/composer’s 30-plus works. Though short, it made a deep impact.

Among the nine short pieces that constitute Robert Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op. 82, the seventh movement, “Vogel als Prophet” (Bird as. Prophet), is the most famous. Why is Waldszenen so rarely heard? Its “Eintritt” (Entry) was gently enticing, the two lively hunting songs charmingly Schumanesque, “Einsame Blumen” (Lonely Flowers) movingly interpreted with a sensitive, beautiful touch, while “Abschied” (Farewell) sounded tender and full of grace—a blanket of peace.

Another knuckle-breaker, Ravel’s astonishingly brilliant Gaspard de la nuit closed the show with breathtaking brilliance. Hamelin has said he considers this to be one of the two greatest pieces composed in the 20th century; he certainly made a strong case for that. Many parts lay in the deep-bass register of the keyboard, recalling Ravel’s inimitable Concerto for the Left Hand. By turns volcanic, demonic, and tender, Hamelin absolutely thrilled us.

The audience demanded more, and Hamelin gleefully complied with C.P.E. Bach’s Rondo in C Minor. His gorgeous CD set of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works a few years ago, made clear his affinity and enthusiasm for this composer. A day after the amazing concert, the inspiring Hamelin’s heavenly touch, particularly in the softer sections, still haunts me.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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