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Monday, February 23, 2015

Concert Review: The Virtuoso in Winter

Marc-Andre Hamelin plays the 92nd St. Y.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Sim Canetty Clark for Colbert Artists Management.

The annual appearance of Marc-Andre Hamelin in a solo piano recital is an occasion that few lovers of keyboard mosic would dare miss. Yet Saturday night's thick, wet snowstorm made travel to the 92nd St. Y a difficult endeavor for some. Those in attendance heard the acclaimed virtuoso play a varied program, featuring the music of Debussy, John Field and Liszt alongside one of his own compositions.

Mr. Hamelin's unassuming appearance hides extraordinary gifts. His hands are capable of playing with great force and yet can color in the liquid shades of a delicate pianissimo. The latter capability was to the fore in the first work of the program: John Field's Andante Inedít.

The Irish-born Field stands next to Muzio Clementi and Johan Nepomuk Hummel: forgotten men of the early 19th century. His brilliant, inventive music stands in tke key transitory period between Beethoven and Schubert. This work, a simple theme subjected to a short but rigorous series of increasingly complex variations curled around the listener's ear in a beguiling fashion, with Mr. Hamelin creating lush, lulling tone.

Debussy's rise marks the end of the great Romantic movement of the 19th century, and represented the French composer's commitment to avoiding what had gone before in a new musical language. Here, Mr. Hamelin applied his sure touch to the second book of Images, applying pointillist technique and gentle modulation of tone to this still innovative music.

Mr. Hamelin's left hand evoked the tolling of Clopches a traves les feuilles, adding color with his right and creating mood with modulations and a transparent clarity of phrase. Et la line decend had some really lovely playing, with a brief solo for the right hand (not really a cadenza) allowing the pianist a moment to indulge Romantic expression in the middle of an Impressionist work. Time hung suspended here. The last movement was the fastest of th e three, with quick keyboard figurations representing Goldfish.

Next up was Mr. Hamelin's 2013 composition Chaconne which offered the most intriguing and challenging music of the night. Mr. Hamelin opened with a four-note theme, which repeats and repeats as the ground bass of the piece. The theme, the notes E-E flat-C-B (E-S-C-H in German notation) suggest artist M.C. Escher, and Mr. Hamelin builds an appropriately surreal structure on this sturdy foundation. The work veered between baroque complexity, modern dodecaphony and pure musical humor, a rich experience as presented by the hands that wrote it.

The soloist dedicated the second half of the evening to Liszt, choosing two difficult and obscure selections from that artist's vast catalogue. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, one of the Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. This lengthy work is one of Liszt's most symphonic creations for the keyboard. A slow, solemn opening  rises into a magnificent theme, full of yearning and wonder. This yielded to two contrasting middle secions of increased floridity, with the pianist adding rivers of notes to the main idea with his right hand. The final section combined the flowing ideas with the majestic main theme, bringing the work full circle to its opening bars.

The three appendices to the Italian book of Années de la pelerenage are among Liszt's most complex and personal creations. The opening is basically a variant on a Venetian gondolier's song, adding pianistic virstuosity to the lapping waves and soaring central idea. The central piece is inspired by a theme from Rossini's Otello, allowing Liszt to indulge his daemonic side in this portrait of a jealous, blackened soul. Rumbling chords gave way to a lurching main theme, almost Mahlerian in its dark, ominous sound.

In the finale, Mr. Hamelin stunned his audience fursther with the Tarantella, Liszt's take on the spider-like Italian dance of the same name. Clawing his hands as if to form that eight-legged monstrosity, Mr. Hamelin played taut, crisp staccato chords that shook the box of the piano with the force of his delivery. He lingered over the slow middle section before allowing the "dancing spider" to return in a swift, accurate reading of this challenging piece. When he finished, nobody fainted or caught his old cigar stubs, but the adoration was a fresh outbreak of Lisztomania.

In the end, Mr. Hamelin rewarded his loyal audience with three encores. First, his cheerful bastardization of Chopin's Minute Waltz, impeccably played with P.D.Q. Bach-like tropes from other works thrown in for fun, including the crashing chords from the end of The Blue Danube. He followed with serious Chopin: the Liszt transcription of one of the composer's Polish songs. He finished with a quick and witty Haydn piece of indeterminate origin and musical brilliance.
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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.