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 the magnificent Chaconne from Bach’s 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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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

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