Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata in B minor, HXVI:32
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
Preludes – Book II

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 October, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Marc-André HamelinMarc-André Hamelin has justifiably acquired a reputation as the pianist who can safely venture where other pianists fear to tread; such is his remarkable technical facility. However, there is much more to him than that as this recital made abundantly clear.

Haydn’s B minor Sonata dates from 1776 but looks backward to the “Sturm und Drang” years of the 1760s. An austere, forceful work, it sat oddly with the remainder of this otherwise stylish recital. On the evidence of this performance, for all the fleetness of his fingerwork and undoubted brilliance, Hamelin and Haydn do not really mix. It was as though an 18th century work – albeit one in a dramatic minor key – were undergoing a transformation into a 19th-century one, rather as Horowitz would play Scarlatti. If one could accept this approach there was much to admire, precisely observed textures, pristine placing of ornaments and a flying finale whose clarity almost beggared description. One admired – for instance the diminuendo at the close of the Minuet, which was miraculous – but was it Haydn or Hamelin?

Better by far was Chopin’s B minor Sonata. Here Hamelin starts where most other pianists leave off. Whereas for many pianists the left-hand provides the accompaniment, such was Hamelin’s control that frequently it seemed as though an extra dimension were being added, the music’s teeming internal life clarified by his ability to voice the inner parts. A further gain lay in the remarkable amplitude of sound, even in the quietest passages. The scherzo, minimally pedalled, had wings, its reprise subtly varied and even more feather-light. The Largo was richly expansive, its final moments hanging almost motionless in the air like a benediction, whilst the finale’s louring menace was fully realised; when the floodgates finally opened there was absolutely no doubt as to where the work’s one real climax lay.

Book II of Debussy’s Préludes is music almost orchestral in its ambition, a point reflected in the fact that Debussy’s manuscript uses not just two staves but three (and, in the case of the opening ‘Brouillards’, four!). Almost his last major work for the piano (if one discounts Six épigraphes antiques and En blanc et noir); only the Etudes were to follow. There is a distinctly Autumnal almost wistful feel to much of the music – ‘Brouillards’, ‘Feuilles mortes’, ‘Bruyères’ – and even the concluding Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) closes with an autumnal touch, a sudden aural sleight of hand with chimes as though heard distantly from behind a heavy curtain on a foggy night. There is an English connection to several of the pieces; besides ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq, P.P.M.P.C’ (Perpetual President – Member Pickwick Club) with its quote from “God Save the King”, several of the pieces were inspired by the illustrations of Arthur Rackham and ‘La terrasse des audiences du claire de lune’ had its genesis in a description of the Coronation of George V as Emperor of India.

Hamelin fared best with the most demanding pieces, producing an exceptional tapestry of sound in ‘Brouillards’, stunning velocity in ‘Les Tierces alternées’, ear-caressing tenderness in ‘Ondine’ and an astonishing orgiastic climax in ‘Feux d’artifice’. His dry wit also served him well in the cakewalk of ‘General Lavine – excentric’. In ‘Feuilles mortes’ the illusion of the two hands operating completely independently was almost unnerving. Simply to play this music is an achievement – to play it this well, extraordinary. If there were one negative it would be that rather than sharply characterised musical cameos, one sometimes had the impression of listening to a series of études and that occasionally the distinctive personality of each Prélude could have emerged even more strongly. For instance, the abrupt and violent contrasts that Debussy calls for in ‘La Puerta del Vino’ seemed underplayed.

Back to Chopin for the encore, a Nocturne perfectly and magically sounded.

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