Marc-André Hamelin at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Piano Sonata in E minor, HobXVI:34
Carnaval, Op.9
Four Studies on Basic Rows – 4: Passacaglia
Préludes [selections from Book II: La puerta del vino; Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses; Feux d’artifice]
Reminiscences de Norma

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 13 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Marc-André Hamelin. Photograph: Nina LargeHad Marc-André Hamelin really just delivered the blisteringly virtuosic, technically eviscerating performance of Liszt’s “Norma” Paraphrase that ended his recital as part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series? It was difficult to square this spectacular explosion of notes with his slightly aloof, quizzical, monk-like stage presence, but then this particular Pied Piper confounds expectations at every turn – his wide-ranging forays into the deep, dark forest of the piano repertoire, his ferocious musical intelligence, and, of course, his economic but fabulously honed technique embracing an extraordinary variety of colour and tone – not to mention his own music. The piano, a Yamaha, was more than equal to everything Hamelin threw at it, from organ-like thunder and volume to a well-nourished, penetrating pianissimo.

As his currently unrolling series of Haydn CDs for Hyperion has shown, Hamelin and Haydn get along just fine, the pianist up for every surprise, quirk and nuance that Haydn has up his sleeve. Other pianists may take the Presto first movement of the E minor Sonata at more of a lick, to the extent that you can almost count only one in a bar. Hamelin’s approach was more spacious, suggesting that directions like Presto and Vivace are more to do with a state of mind, and the detail of the phrasing was flecked with highlights, underpinned by some seriously tactful pedalling. The Chopin-anticipating song-like decorations of the slow movement had a fresh, improvisatory quality that got to the heart of this disarming, delightful work.

Delight was abundant in Schumann’s Carnaval, and Hamelin conjured up a thrilling array of characters – a sort of People from an Exhibition. What gave most pleasure was the way in which Hamelin allowed each portrayal room to shine and dally, before folding them back into the main procession, and the slightly solemn, self-conscious presence of Schumann himself was present, observing and indulging the antic with tender affection. It was revelatory, captivating, touching, full of life and layers, and, if music can be wise, wise.

That clarity and sense of direction informed the majestic Passacaglia by Stefan Wolpe (1902-72), into which Hamelin shone a bright light on early-twentieth-century contrapuntalism to sonorous effect. This is strenuous music, but the strenuous can dance. From that to Debussy was quite a shock, with the selection of Préludes sounding infinitely more modern and unshackled by tradition, even though they were composed a generation earlier. Hamelin opened his paint-box for us – ‘Feux d’artifice’ was spectacular, a case of light the blue-touch-paper and retire to be amazed by a truly dazzling display.

The Liszt was like one of those trailers that is so comprehensive as to make seeing the whole thing redundant. Hamelin surpassed himself, even in this superlative recital. The drama of Bellini’s Druid princess burst into life under Hamelin’s magisterial control – he seemed to be not so much playing the piano as directing an epic story. It was gigantic, generous, old-fashioned virtuosity, and its colossal rhetoric made even Hamelin break into a bit of a sweat.

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