Concert Review: Marc-André Hamelin at The University of Washington

Marc-André Hamelin

Three nights ago, in his second appearance in Seattle in the past year, pianist Marc-André Hamelin gave a recital at Meany Hall at the University of Washington, and, as is typical for Hamelin, the program included both the well-known and the unknown. He led off with Bach’s magnificent Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin, in its transcription for piano by Busoni. This is a colossal work, one I have written about at some length elsewhere on this blog. I will add only that Hamelin’s interpretation was in every way worthy of Bach and Busoni’s creation. Bravo to all three!

Concluding the first half of the program was the Sonata No. 3 by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962). This was the first time I’ve heard this sonata, which was written in 1916 and which is, perhaps, more accessible than the Sonata No. 4, which I heard Hamelin play last year. The Sonata No. 3 is a giant piece, full of thorny complexities and challenging harmonies, and an extraordinary workout for the pianist. It is also a cry from the heart, and for me at least, it was the centerpiece of the recital. Feinberg was a composer of obvious gifts and startling originality. How is it possible that his music has remained in the backwater of the piano repertoire for so long?

But not any more! Hamelin has been programming Feinberg in his recitals for some time, and is planning to release an album of the first six of his twelve sonatas. I have to wonder if in years to come, Feinberg’s name will forever be linked with that of Hamelin.

Hamelin rightly recognized the effect that the Feinberg sonata might have had on the audience, and before embarking on the second half of his program, he remarked, “I hope the following will provide a little bit of relief from what you just heard.” The piece that followed – Alexis Weissenberg’s “Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trenet” (1950) – was well-chosen for that purpose. The six pieces brought to mind words like tuneful, charming, boisterous, humorous, elegant, and wistful, but regardless of the mood, there is something unmistakably French about these arrangements. Listening to them, I could easily imagine myself in Paris, overhearing music emanating from a nightclub somewhere down the street.

Here is a video from 2009 of Hamelin playing the third piece from this set, “En avril, à Paris” (April in Paris).

Next on the program was another piece that was new to me, “Cypresses”, by the Italian-American composer Mario Castelnuovo­-­Tedesco (1895-1968). Composed in 1920, “Cypresses” is a very inward looking piece and reveals a strong influence of Debussy. In it, Hamelin created a sustained, reflective atmosphere, at least until it was rudely interrupted by a cellphone in the row behind me.

The final two works on the program were both by Chopin: the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 and the Scherzo No. 4 in E Major. In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Hamelin adopted a more relaxed tempo than one often hears, which lent it a more introspective quality. Hamelin obviously has a deep love for Chopin, which together with his extraordinary touch, made of this well-known piece a very personal statement. The Scherzo No. 4 is the most light-hearted of Chopin’s four scherzi. Although it has its reflective moments, it brought the evening’s program to a close on a joyous, upbeat note.

Everything Hamelin does, he does masterfully, and at the end of his program, the Seattle audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation. In return, Hamelin gave us one encore: Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks) from Book 2 of his preludes. Here is a video from 2007 of Hamelin performing the same piece.

Without ever neglecting the staples of the piano repertoire, Hamelin has done yeoman’s service in bringing the music of lesser­-known composers to the attention of the public. Whatever he plays, he plays with consummate authority, and like all great pianists, he opens wide a window into his heart and soul. This was my third time hearing him in person. Hopefully there will be many more.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on October 20, 2018 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nikolai Medtner: Sonata Reminiscenza Pianist – Marc-Andre Hamelin

Nikolai Medtner

Nikolai Medtner

Among the many lesser-known composers whose music Marc-Andre Hamelin has championed over the course of his career is the Russian-born Nikolai Medtner, who lived from 1880 to 1951 and was a contemporary and close friend of Rachmaninoff.  Medtner’s output was considerable.  It includes three piano concertos, three sonatas for violin and piano, a piano quintet, more than a hundred songs, fourteen piano sonatas, and many smaller works for solo piano.

In his introduction to the YouTube video of another Medtner sonata, the “Sonata Romantica”, Hamelin has this to say about Medtner’s music:

…I knew Medtner’s name way before that, but it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I started to look at the music.  Medtner’s music unfortunately is of the kind that rarely makes the best impression at first hearing.  It is not particularly melodically generous like, for example, Rachmaninoff tends to be, but I’ve found time and again that if you give Medtner time, and if you give him a second chance and a third chance, if you listen and listen and listen again, he will reveal himself to you, and you will not be able to get rid of him afterwards. He will be always part of you.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I would add this: the admonition to give Medtner a second and third chance applies just as well to the music of other composers.  Music is a language.  We would never dream of trying to make sense of a foreign language when we encounter it for the first time, yet how often do we pass judgment on a new piece of music without first taking the time and trouble to become familiar with it?  Countless opportunities to enrich our lives are lost in this way.  I’m not saying that we should withhold judgment indefinitely on every new piece of music we hear – not every unfamiliar composer is a Medtner – but I am saying that it is vital not to rush to judgment.

Hamelin is no less enthusiastic about this particular sonata than he is about Medtner’s music in general.  In Robert Rimm’s 2002 book, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and The Eight, Hamelin speaks as follows about the “Sonata Reminiscenza”:

Even if the title itself did not indicate reminiscence, there is definitely that feeling of looking back.  I do not expect this sonata to lose the hold it has on me at any time in the future.  There is nothing like the Reminiscenza in the literature.  It is one of the most personal statements that I have known any composer to share.  If it had been written later in Medtner’s life, it could well have served as a summation of life experiences: looking back with fondness over the good things one remembers and with regret at the negative events or those one is not proud of.  It contains the richest concentration of conflicting emotions I have ever witnessed.  Its sixteen minutes are a microcosm of life.

This video was recorded at the Casals Hall in Tokyo in 1997, at the same recital as the performance of Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” that I posted on this blog in October 2009.  Like that video, the image quality is not the best, but the sound is excellent.

Published in: on September 30, 2014 at 3:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907–1908) Pianist – Marc-Andre Hamelin

Alban Berg

Today’s post represents something of a departure for this blog.  Unlike the music I have featured previously, the Piano Sonata by Alban Berg is not a piece I love.  In fact, it is music that I’m still hoping someday to enjoy.

I believe wholeheartedly that we owe it to ourselves to listen to new music.  How many times have we come to appreciate a piece of music only over time, music which at first failed to move us?  To give just two examples from my own experience, when I first heard Samuel Barber’s monumental piano sonata, or Scriabin’s epic Sonata No. 5, their language was foreign to me.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible that they would ever become personal favorites, but they did.  We need to learn not always to trust our first impressions, and to give new and unfamiliar music – music which may not invite a second hearing – a second and even a third chance before allowing ourselves to form an opinion.  Some music simply requires more time.

I say this as much as a reminder to myself as to you, dear reader.  Although my musical tastes run from Bach to Barber, I have never counted any music by Berg, Webern, or Schoenberg (with the exception of Verklärte Nacht) among my favorites.  Their music has always felt alien to me; I didn’t understand it, and it didn’t resonate with me emotionally.  Today I see my lack of appreciation for their music as a personal failing, the result of a gaping hole in my music education.  This post is an attempt to begin to fill that hole.  If I needed additional encouragement to listen to this sonata, surely the fact that it has been championed by such eminent pianists as Alfred Brendel, Glenn Gould, and Marc-Andre Hamelin, to name just three, would be reason enough.

The following notes are reprinted from the website of the International Music Score Library Project (http://imslp.org).  The complete score of this sonata is also available at IMSLP, one of the internet’s most valuable resources for classical musicians and music lovers.

The early sonata sketches of Berg while being a student under Schoenberg eventually culminated in this sonata; while considered to be his “graduating composition”, it is one of the most formidable initial works ever written by any composer (Lauder, 1986).

This sonata consists of a single movement centered in the key of B minor, but Berg makes frequent use of chromaticism, whole-tone scales, and wandering key centers, giving the tonality a very unstable feel. The piece is in the typical sonata form, with an Exposition, Development and Recapitulation, but the composition also relies heavily on Arnold Schoenberg’s idea of developing variation, a method to ensure the unity of a piece of music by deriving all aspects of a composition from a single idea.

Schoenberg stated that the unity of a piece is dependent on all aspects of the composition being derived from a single basic idea. Berg would then pass this idea down to one of his students, Theodor Adorno, who in turn stated: “The main principle he conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different.”  The Sonata is a striking example of the execution of this idea — the whole composition can be derived from the opening quartal gesture and from the opening leitmotif.

Published in: on January 28, 2012 at 8:08 am  Comments (2)  
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Franz Liszt: Etude No. 39 “Un Sospiro” Pianist – Marc-Andre Hamelin

hamelinFor many of you, this video will serve as an introduction to the pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who was born in Montreal in 1961.  Hamelin is an extraordinary virtuoso who has performed and recorded much of the less well-known repertoire, including many works that less technically gifted pianists would not even attempt.  Yet, as this video demonstrates, he plays with a musical feeling no less exceptional than his technique.

“Un Sospiro” translates as “The Sigh”.  We read on Wikipedia that this etude by Liszt “is a study in crossing hands, playing a simple melody with alternating hands, and arpeggios.”  It is also exceptionally beautiful, and though the image quality in this video is not especially good, the sound is excellent.

Though no one should be placed in the position of following Marc-Andre Hamelin, I am happy to present a second performance of “Un Sospiro”, this one featuring my favorite young pianist, Szuyu Su, whom I introduced last month playing Prokofiev’s “Harp” prelude.  Rachel, as she likes to be called, is a little older in this video, perhaps 9 years old, and I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb at all in predicting a brilliant concert career for her in the years ahead.

If you would like to see more of Rachel, you can see all of her YouTube uploads (54 at latest count) here: http://www.youtube.com/user/yw1935

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 1:02 am  Comments (1)  
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