Concert Review: Hamelin Pinch-Hits for Lang Lang, Belts Home Run

Marc-André Hamelin

Two nights ago, Marc-André Hamelin stepped up to the plate in Seattle to pinch-hit for an ailing Lang Lang, who is reported to have been sidelined since last April with inflammation in his left arm.  Not an easy assignment, filling in for the Chinese superstar.  How did Hamelin do?  Quite simply, he hit it out of the park.  He hit it a country mile.

The first half of the program was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt, but notably absent were Lisztian warhorses like the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, “Funerailles”, “Un Sospiro”, and the monumental B minor Sonata.  Instead, Hamelin favored us with three lesser-known works, and showed us a side of Liszt we seldom see, one that is deeply personal and startlingly profound.

First on the program was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.  Not as well known as many of Liszt’s rhapsodies, the 13th reminds us that not all gypsy tunes are brilliant, up-tempo dances.  The Andante was suffused with a vague melancholy, while in the concluding Vivace, Hamelin’s legendary technique was much in evidence, with fleet-fingered passagework alternating with fortissimo passages of great power.

This was followed by Liszt’s “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” (The Blessing of God in Solitude).  The opening to this piece is perhaps the most reflective thing Liszt ever wrote, and Hamelin made it a very personal statement.  The second movement is simplicity itself, and in Hamelin’s hands, nothing was rushed.  He gave the music space to breathe, and in so doing, let it speak to us.  The third movement is as profound as anything in Liszt.  It is Liszt looking deep within himself.  I’ve never heard anything like it.

The last piece on the first half was Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H.  This is not an attempt to compose in the style of Bach, but rather an homage to him, based on the four notes that correspond to the letters of Bach’s name.  We learn from flagmusic.com that,

In the German system of key spellings, the lettering runs from A through H, rather than A through G.  Our B-flat is the German B, and B is denoted H.  This allows one to spell the name B-A-C-H on the keys, thus:”

This is a very dark piece.  Where the “Bénédiction” is the ultimate in introspective reflection, and might be described as a soul at peace, this is an impassioned cry in which we seem to have a soul in torment.  At its climax, Hamelin created a volume of sound such as I have never before heard from a piano.  The effect was overwhelming.  At its conclusion, the audience gave Hamelin a standing ovation, even though it was just the end of the first half of the program.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

The first piece after the intermission was the Sonata No. 4 by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962), whose music was entirely unknown to me prior to this recital.  Feinberg has been called a musical heir to Scriabin, and like much of Scriabin’s music, this sonata is mysterious, dark, and impassioned.  From the first notes, it created such tension and suspense that I almost felt the need to hold my breath.

Throughout his career, Hamelin has made it a point to program and record lesser-known works.  Several years ago, he introduced me to Medtner, and now to Feinberg, so I’m particularly grateful for his dedication to lesser known composers.  He’s planning to record the first six of Feinberg’s twelve piano sonatas, and I’m eagerly looking forward to that release.

Next on the program was Debussy’s Images, Book I.  No one could paint pictures with music like Debussy, or coax such lovely sounds from the piano.  The first two pieces, Reflets dans l’eau and Hommage à Rameau, felt very improvisational.  Hamelin allowed these pieces to whisper to the audience in a way that held us in rapt attention throughout.  By contrast, the third piece, Mouvement, was a welcome expression of shared joy.

The final work on the program was Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Wine, Women, and Song after Johann Strauss.  This kind of pianistic tour de force is meat and potatoes for Hamelin, and despite its complexity and technical difficulties, offered the audience some delightfully tuneful interludes.

This was a recital one might wish would go on and on into the night, but as Chaucer reminds us, “All good things must come to an end.”  Hamelin gave us two encores.  The first was Godowsky’s “The Gardens of Buitenzorg” from the Java Suite, and the second was one of Hamelin’s own compositions, a toccata based on the old French song, “L’homme armé”, which he wrote for the recently concluded Van Cliburn Competition.

Hamelin does so many things well, he is impossible to classify.  Just when you think he’s a Liszt specialist, he plays Debussy like no one else you’ve ever heard.  Then he plays a Strauss waltz in an absolutely captivating manner.  If you have the chance to hear him in person, you mustn’t let it pass you by.  You will almost certainly hear something new, and you will without a doubt hear piano playing that you will never forget.

As for me, this was the second time I’ve heard Hamelin in person.  The first was in 2010 when I heard him play Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This was, however, the first time I’ve heard him in recital, which is the best way to appreciate the range of his talent.

I hope it won’t be the last.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on September 30, 2017 at 10:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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