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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Concert Review: The Keys to the Kingdom

Marc-André Hamelin returns to Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Sim Canetty Clark for Colbert Artists Management.
Any recital by Marc-André Hamelin in New York City is greeted with eager, one would say even fevered anticipation by piano aficionados. Mr. Hamelin may not have the international fame of Yevgeni Kissin or Lang Lang. He has been invited (yet) to join Metallica onstage. But this artist has something more than virtuosity. He has musicianship--and a willingness to explore the difficult corners of the piano catalogue where other artists so often fear to tread.

All of these excellent  qualities were on bright display on Monday night at Zankel Hall, when Mr. Hamelin gave a broad and varied program that placed demands on both soloist and listener. He started with his own music: the New York premiere of a nine-minute Barcarolle, played carefully from sheet music arranged neatly on top of his piano. The familiar slap-slap rhythm of the Venetian gondolier's oar was filtered through the modal ideas of Debussy and the dark chromaticism first explored in the late contrapuntal works of Franz Liszt.


Dark, rumbling chords suggested the silt and muck that lines the canals of Venice. A flood of arpeggiated notes flowed freely from the right hand, carefully controlled and muted by Mr. Hamelin. Throughout this continuously shifting piece, the tonal colors were deliberately dark and blurry, creating a nocturnal atmosphere that absorbed and stimulated the listener. In the last passages, the one-two rhythm associated with another famous barcarolle (this one from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann) appeared, twisted and darkened into a minor crie de couer.

The second piece was even more ambitious: Nikolai Medtner's Piano Sonata No. 2 subtitled The Night Wind. Medtner is a forgotten man in early 20th century Russian music, a follower of Rachmaninoff who created demanding works painted in bold, chromatic colors. This 33-minute sonata is built as a single movement. Medtner combines the traditional elements of the sonata form in one continuous unfolding of musical thought, with slow movement, dance themes and long cadenza passages all supported by the recurrence of a single recurring motif. This idée-fixe guides the listener through stormy outbursts of down-the-stairs arpeggios and swirling chords that evoke the hot-house atmosphere of Scriabin.

Mr. Hamelin demonstrated his mastery of this music with a tremendous performance, his calm demeanor seemingly at odds with the torrent of ideas pouring forth on to the keyboard. The wide expanses of this sonata enabled the artist to display a vast array of tonal colors and expressive moods, each played with meaning and portent. Throughout, the surging theme increased in its insistent power, like the rising winds in the poem that inspired Medtner to write this piece. These zephyrs stirred, eddied, swirled and battered the listener in the final pages, only to die down in an upward final flourish--a curious anti-climax to such a grand design.

After this titanic sonata, a program of Schubert works seems like lighter fare. But in this case, Mr. Hamelin had chosen the Four Impromptus (catalogue no. D. 935), single movements for piano that when played together, form one coherent musical thought. (Schumann referred to these four works as Schubert's "hidden sonata.") Mr. Hamelin presented these pieces as a unit, imbuing each with a rich, liquid sound that dove to the heart of each melody. The first of the Impromptus in fact follows sonata allegro form, with Mr. Hamelin relishing the complex passages of the development before bringing the main thematic idea home in the recapitulation and coda.

The two central Impromptus are in A-B-A form, with No. 2. constituting the slow movement of this theoretical sonata. Mr. Hamelin's playing here was sweet and soulful, building from the opening melody to a dramatic climax of sound. The third starts life as a simple, almost childish dance theme, run through a stunning set of variations that built in complexity and harmonic richness as they developed. The fourth work proved to be a brilliant Rondo, its repeating material a sprightly energetic dance with overtones of folk music.

This mighty quartet of pieces was met with an enthusiastic reception from the packed Zankel Hall, and followed by three brilliant encores. For the "afters," Mr. Hamelin chose the Reflets dans l'eau from Debussy's Images, played with swirling water-colors that recalled the opening Barcarolle, and the Minute Waltz in Seconds, his own reworking of Chopin. Finally, he returned for one more encore, announced as a piece known by all who appreciate piano music. This was the dazzling A Flat Etude by Paul van der Schözler, and it ended the evening on an appropriate and dazzling note. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.