Written by: Ben Hogwood
My chat with Marc-André Hamelin begins literally minutes after the pianist has arrived at his London hotel, just the day before his late-night Proms recital of Liszt. He comes to London off the back of a recital in Husum, near the Danish border in northern Germany, closing the twenty-fifth annual festival of ‘rarities of piano music’. Hamelin, of course, is known for his explorations of demanding repertoire that not often sees the light of day, and his programme there typified this – an adventurous recital of Busoni, Liszt, Fauré, and a world premiere – the pianist’s own Variations on a theme of Paganini. “It was devoted to the rarities of the piano repertoire”, he says of the Husum concert, “and happily it was very well received.” Busoni would seem a logical next move in an increasingly impressive recorded odyssey for Hyperion. “Yes”, is his unequivocal response. “As a matter of fact I have a project ongoing, a double CD collection of most of the late works. I don’t know when it’s going to be released, but I do believe that Busoni is a composer who deserves to be better known.” Is it a question of forging a link with Liszt, effectively one of Busoni’s ancestors in piano music? “I wouldn’t think so, but it’s not the primary impulse. Hyperion expressed a wish to have the Busoni in the catalogue, and it represents a chance to get to know him better. The programme is likely to consist of all the Sonatinas (there are six) and Elegies, seven pieces for ‘continuation’, and the Prelude and Etude in Arpeggios. I’ve also been playing the later version of the Chopin Variations and all the puzzle canons of the Musical Offering, which Busoni solved and then fashioned in to one piece for concert use.”
Hamelin, having now given his Proms Liszt recital, will play Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen in Prom 65 on Saturday 3 September. Was his own Paganini Variations informed by the Rachmaninov in any way? “Not really, but they are somewhat whacky. They last about ten minutes, and in that time there are fourteen variations. Someone I know who was at the concert said that the kitchen sink was also in there! The theme is again the 24th Caprice, and I found that for a few bars it fits contrapuntally with the Liszt piece, La campanella!” Hamelin is familiar with Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and is looking forward to revisiting the piece. “As a matter of fact I gained a lot of experience when I performed it on a tour with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 1994. It’s like an old friend. I don’t think I’ve necessarily changed my approach to it. Sometimes interpretations evolve in ways we’re not aware of, but it doesn’t really feel different this time around.”
A much-recorded pianist, Hamelin has yet to record his thoughts on Rachmaninov’s canon. “I have the highest respect for Rachmaninov, but we are getting over-saturated with it. I shudder to think what will happen in the anniversary year! I know I have recorded a lot of less-familiar repertoire instead, but I would not record obscure music just for the sake of it.”
Liszt has enjoyed a prolific anniversary year of recordings. “There have been a lot of Liszt sonatas, but a number of people have continued to portray him as a clown or showman. The truth is that he was one of the most original minds that ever lived. He gave us his originality in all kinds of respects, he was one of the first to push tonality to extremes, and he invented the symphonic poem, and really pushed with his experimentation. I don’t like everything he did, and the pomposity of the symphonic poems does not translate so well for me, but there is enough that is startlingly original and so fresh to our ears, and to dismiss it is very wrong.”
We touch briefly on his solo recital at the Proms. “Originally the programme was not all-Liszt; there was a want for a programme based on virtuosity. I had suggested other composers, but the way things progressed it came around to a Liszt recital.” And what are the most important issues when performing this composer’s music? He thinks for a little. “To give as accurate an impression as possible of the spirit of the period. You have to have an awareness of artists and writers of the time as Liszt was so heavily influenced by them. By that I mean people like Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo. Liszt was very keen to translate these things in to musical terms.” And what of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic? Hamelin admits to some inexperience on that front. “I have only played there once before. I did the Proms, the first Liszt concerto, where I substituted for an ailing pianist, so aside from that in 1987 I have not been there since! With regard to your question though I think the importance is the gamut of Liszt’s dynamic extremes, from the softest pianissimo to the largest block chords. I’m also aware that I am playing for radio, so playing just to reach the back row is not the best tactic.” Performance manner is also important to him. “If you’ve ever seen me at the keyboard you will know I just don’t move. I’ve never thought for one second to do more than is actually needed. People listen better if they are not distracted by histrionics.”
As for Hamelin as composer, he is happy to downplay this aspect of his musical career. “I do still compose, but I’ve only ever had one commission in my life. Other than that I’ve always written as a pianist first and as a composer second. I have to wait for an important spark of inspiration.” A disc of his music was released on Hyperion in September 2010, containing the Etudes in all the Minor Keys, and he has nothing but praise for his record company. “Hyperion has been so welcoming, and although understandably slightly more cautious to begin with they realised it was working. We still have a lot of exciting projects that we are working on, but I can’t say too much about those other ones yet.” Given his reputation for performing music of high-stakes virtuosity, how long does Hamelin tend to spend learning a piece? “I don’t want to quantify that because it’s not important”, he says assertively. “When you have learned all the notes, that’s when your relationship with the piece begins. With each performance you learn a lot more, and it gets deeper. When I hear young people say I give you two weeks, the result is often an interpretation that is half-finished.” With twenty-five years’ experience of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody that’s the last thing likely to be levelled at him in the Proms this year.