Marc-André Hamelin

Piano Sonata in E, Op.109
Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 18 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

All agree these works are transcendental, many-faceted monuments of the repertoire. If you think those facets reflect the complexities of the human condition, especially in today’s world, that these pieces illuminate, in Mitsuko Uchida’s words “The intrinsic tragedy of being alive”, you would have been enthralled by Marc-André Hamelin’s playing. But if you rely on the transcendence to uplift you to a better world, if you listen to these works for the consolation great art brings, you would probably have wanted your money back.

For an explication of these performances, one had only to look at Hamelin’s own word in the programme: these were works to “marvel” at, works that had more and more meaning today. Hamelin made us, as listeners, hear these works with awe, not love; remoteness, not intimacy.

Hamelin has a reputation as a supreme technician, well deserved judging by the effortless legato of his left-hand encore. But in the sonatas, he sought difficulty, not display. He could play with extraordinary beauty of tone and lyricism – witness the very opening of Opus 110 – yet here for the most part he cultivated a generally metallic sound, making the fullest use of staccato. The strangeness of the D960 trio was neither made other-worldly (as for example in Brendel) nor smoothed over. Its staccato oddness was simply made to jut out.

Performers usually emphasise either the recitative aspect of the first movement of Opus 109 (as did Gilels) or the faster toccata-like notes (as in the famous Pollini recording). Hamelin juxtaposed both, and wanted us to hear the incongruity. He did not let us settle in the first movement of Opus 110, and as for the outer movements of D960, he constantly disturbed the flow of the music, in particular varying each iteration of a sequence or a repeated phrase. However, the slow movement of the Schubert was much ‘straighter’, Hamelin deliberately refusing to sentimentalise any of the winning modulations.

Despite this remoteness, these were Romantic interpretations. Hamelin used plenty of pedal and rubato. Opus 110 was a textbook demonstration of Charles Rosen’s ideas about the Romantics and fugue – that it is more about texture than counterpoint. Hamelin weighed and coloured the chords in the fugue wonderfully, but placed the overall sound-picture above the clarity of individual parts. Indeed, the playing was less preternaturally clean than report has it from Hamelin’s other recitals. The passagework of Opus 110’s first movement, the fast chords in the scherzo, even the prestissimo of Opus 109 that should have been his absolute forte: all had fluffed or inaudible notes.

Hamelin’s approach did bring moments of extreme and unusual insight – I have always queried the jagged, angular bridge passage that leads back to the first movement exposition repeat in D960, and therefore preferred not to hear the latter again. But in Hamelin’s angular interpretation, this passage suddenly made perfect sense, and, indeed, in the varied reprise he brought out a middle voice I had never heard before. In Opus 110, the tension in the Adagio was almost unbearably tortured, making the return to the major just before the fugue satisfyingly cathartic.

Where Hamelin did deploy his full technical armament, such as in the rapid counterpoint of Variation III in the finale of Opus 109 or the descending demi-semiquavers under the trills at the end, we had glimpses of a far more Apollonian view of the works. The scherzo of D960 was as light as a breeze. But elsewhere, he seemed to repudiate the idea that control should be at the service of naturalness, making little of the modulations in the slow movement of D960, nor letting go in the peroration of Opus 110.

Perhaps, in repertoire so well known, each generation of artists feels a need to say something new, and is therefore in danger of over-interpreting. Nevertheless, there does seem to be something of a fashion in, for want of a better word, deconstructive versions of classical sonatas – other examples are Pletnev’s Mozart and, above all, Zimerman’s magnificently thought-provoking Opus 110.

Hamelin, reasonably enough, would have us see that such great material is also subject to infinite analysis, and therefore infinite re-interpretation.

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