Harrods International Piano Series 2001/2002 – 11th April

Bach transcribed Busoni
Chaconne in D minor (from Partita for unaccompanied violin, BWV1004)
Fantasie in C, Op.17
Hamelin:Con Intissimo Sentimento
Symphony for solo piano (Nos.4-7 from 12 Etudes, Op.39)

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Mark E Croasdale

Reviewed: 11 April, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Today’s virtuosi have the ability to stroll on to the stage and settle into their recital programme without much fuss. Hamelin is no exception but his cold and aloof exterior belies genuine warmth.

The highlight of Bach’s Chaconne in Busoni’s transcription was Hamelin’s quiet touch, especially in the middle and upper registers, and a well-judged, expansive tempo. With or without the sustaining pedal, Hamelin has a warm tone in quiet passages that provides a convincing and comforting atmosphere. These elements gave the performance coherence but it was overshadowed through over-enthusiastic left-hand octave playing that drowned everything above it and a homogenised approach to tempo that obscured the variety of moods permeating the work. The performance did eventually build towards a powerful conclusion with a taut, sustained, well-executed and exciting crescendo.

The advertised Schumann was the Op.12 Fantasiestucke. Where the Chaconne suffered from lack of tempo variation, Schumann’s Fantasie abounded in it. Alas this provided the work’s undoing – no sooner had the mystic started out on the tortuous path to romantic oblivion than he pulled up to make sure he was on the right track. Nevertheless, Hamelin was never boring and he introduced tasteful light and shade. Both hands were now in agreement to balance resoluteness with tenderness. Hamelin showed great imagination and considerable craft to produce such variety of tone. However, whether at the opening’s dynamically equal left-hand accompaniment, which lacked tension, or the technically flawless but perfunctory chordal leaps of the second, or the sustained build-up of dynamics that lacked rapture in the third, the performance failed to ignite passionately. Not for the first time in this series has a top-rate performer failed to do justice to Schumann’s music.

In what was easily the pick of the recital, he captivated and entranced with a technically undemanding, undemonstrative set of seven pieces of his own. Hamelin had already demonstrated his ability to play quietly and delicately, now with conviction. These unostentatious pieces introspectively made their way through a kaleidoscope of chromatic blocks of sound and plaintive phrasing reminiscent of Messiaen.

Equipoise having now been restored, it was possible to face the maelstrom of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s limitless, though single-tracked, imagination. To play all the notes requires considerable technique; to play them this quickly is unbelievable but to dispatch the single-note passages with this degree of clarity and to leap from one register of the keyboard to another landing chords here, there and everywhere whilst still giving them weight was a display of transcendental technical virtuosity. Of course, there is some music amongst all this frippery and it deserves to be played – if only to remind that, for some pianists, centuries of standard piano literature will never be enough.

  • The next Harrods recital is given by Cristina Ortiz on Tuesday, 23 April, at 7.45 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall – Chopin, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Villa-Lobos.
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk

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