Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall – Ives’s Concord Sonata & Brahms’s F minor

Piano Sonata No.2, ‘Concord, Mass. 1840-1860’ [Concord Sonata]
Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 June, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Marc-André Hamelin. Photograph: Fran KaufmanRenowned as a ‘thinking virtuoso’, Marc-André Hamelin has never lacked ambition when it comes to programming – evident in this coupling of Ives’s and Brahms’s most expansive piano works. Despite Charles Ives’s distrust of European training, moreover, the American had a regard for his German predecessor the more audible through such juxtaposition. Hamelin’s first recording of ‘Concord Sonata’ (Music & Arts) brought him wider attention, its combination of technical brilliance and formal control not necessarily equalled by his immaculate and also more considered remake (Hyperion). This Wigmore Hall performance of ‘Concord Sonata’ was very much on a par with the latter in its conceiving of the work (first published in 1919 with a revision appearing in 1947) as steeped in its late-Romantic antecedents. So the opening ‘Emerson’ movement favoured an unusually clear-cut approach to the alternation between the respective simplicity and complexity of its prose and verse episodes such as informs the music’s progress, for all that its sonata-form overlay seemed rather under-projected by comparison. Hamelin assuredly had the measure of the demonic scherzo that is ‘Hawthorne’ – though the meditative first trio lacked focus in spite of its clusters being precisely rendered, while the subsequent interpolation of popular allusions felt parenthetical to the movement overall – then the rhapsodic intermezzo of ‘The Alcotts’ was given without a hint of sentimentality, even if the rapt central pages were somewhat matter-of-fact and the impulsive closing bars lacked fervency. As is common these days, the final ‘Thoreau’ movement emerged as merely thoughtful rather than contemplative – its evocation of time and place done with no mean sensitivity yet also an emotional reticence that made relatively little of its intense inwardness.

In so predicating its intrinsically compositional concerns, Hamelin was no doubt seeking to draw attention to the work’s stature judged purely as music – which, given his continued orientation towards more mainstream repertoire, can hardly be objected to as such, though it would be a pity if this re-emphasis be accompanied by interpretative inhibition. This latter point was borne out the more strongly by Hamelin’s reading of Brahms’s F minor Piano Sonata. It has often been questioned why the composer should not have returned to the genre thereafter – though it is conceivable that Brahms, then aged 20, felt he had already extended and ‘personalised’ it to an extent that was not possible to go beyond without compromise to its inherently Classical precepts. These latter were firmly to the fore in Hamelin’s account – notably an opening Allegro whose thematic contrasts of rhetoric and rumination were powerfully expounded if with lesser concern for their expressive integration over the course of the movement, while the ensuing Andante brought a keen eloquence in its confiding central section though also a feeling that the lengthy coda might, after all, be more an inspired afterthought than a formal necessity. The scherzo unfolded with almost truculent verve, though not neglecting the trio’s more wistful virtues – making it the more regrettable that Hamelin then rather breezed through the ‘Rückblick’ Intermezzo with its fatalistic transformation of earlier ideas; thereby making the latter less a movement per se than a slow introduction in search of its context. The finale, drawing on sonata and rondo procedures in a cumulative resolution of impressive conviction, proceeded with just a hint of caution towards its decisive if less than ideally affirmative outcome.

It would be wrong to infer that the performances were to be found wanting either in technical mastery or interpretative finesse; only that in both pieces Hamelin seemed intent on conveying an objective detachment that at times bordered on aloofness. Taken on their own terms these were impressive accounts, yet compared to others in recent memory – Alexei Lubimov’s inspiring odyssey through the Ives in this venue, or Krystian Zimerman’s towering rendition of the Brahms at the Royal Festival Hall – the last degree of insight seemed missing. A limpid rendering of the first movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C (K545) made for a captivating encore: the essence of that self-expression to which Hamelin now, perhaps, aspires.

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