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Monday, May 16, 2011

Concert Review: Virtuoso, Underground

The piano hammers of Hamelin.
Photo © Hyperion Records/Marc-André Hamelin
Marc-André Hamelin in recital at Zankel Hall.
The French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin is one of the most prodigious exponents of 19th century keyboard repertory playing today. In a series of recordings for Hyperion, Mr . Hamelin has delved into the music of obscure composers like Alkan, Henselt and Godowsky, breathing new life into neglected works and playing them with technical flair and rich, emotional pianism. He has also written and recorded his own set of Etudes, expanding the repertory of virtuoso piano music and bringing works by these "lost" composers to the ears of the public.

Wednesday night featured Mr. Hamelin at Carnegie Hall's  Zankel Hall performance space, giving an intimate recital of works that spanned three centuries of knuckle-busting pianism. The program opened with Haydn's E Minor sonata, in a brisk reading that evoked the formal gardens and raked paths of Esterhazy, the country castle of Haydn's patron. Mr. Hamelin played with lyricism and light humor, evoking Haydn's personal warmth over the three movements.

Robert Schumann's Carnaval, a cycle of 21 piano pieces depicting the composer, his fiancee and their various associates, was played at an exhilerating speed. Listening to Mr. Hamelin play this music was like riding in a friend's car on a dark, twisty road at night, going at a dangerous clip but thrilled by the ride.

The second half of the evening began with the Ostinato by Stefan Wolpe, a 12-tone composition by this underrated modernist composer. Mr. Hamelin laid out the tone rows and proceeded to go to town in the harmonic development, adding layers of incredible complexity and showing the richness and variety that is possible with this complicated composing technique. This piece involved the most difficult piano playing of the evening, and Mr. Hamelin played with a fierce, fluent attack.

Mr. Hamelin then downshifted into a slower, more romantic mood for Gabriel Faure's Nocturne in d minor. Like Haydn, Faure is not known for his piano music, but this elegant Nocturne reveals that his music serves as an important bridge between the picturesque music of Saint-Säens and the impressionism of Debussy. Mr. Hamelin played with rich, elegaic phrasing, producing gentle tones that still required his formidable pianistic abilities.

After a short pause, Mr. Hamelin charged into the finale, giving a flashy, passionate performance of the "Reminiscences from Norma" by Franz Liszt, based on themes from the opera by Vincenzo Bellini. Liszt uses various themes from the opera as an opportunity for bravura display, adding repetitions and variations, arpeggiating chords and incorporating sweeping glissandos and difficult rhythms for the left hand.

For the most part, Liszt ignores "Casta Diva" (though you can hear it in a few bars) using the variations to cast brilliant new light on Bellini's work. Originally designed simply as a crowd-pleaser, Mr. Hamelin showed that there is depth and inspiration in Liszt's setting of this operatic masterwork, mining it for new musical material even as he made the upper part of the keyboard sing in a bel canto style.

The audience's appreciation was met a pair of stellar encores. First up, the Elegy from Turandot by Ferruccio Busoni. Although Turandot is a German setting of an Italian play set in China, Busoni chose to use this Elegy to experiment with the English folk-song "Greensleeves". He expands that simple tune into a dizzying set of variations, bending it into almost unrecognizable shape. Mr. Hamelin followed with Ondine, the first part of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Before the performance, Mr. Hamelin confessed that he had not played this piecein front of an audiencce in many years. But judging from the reaction, the audience would have gladly stayed for Le Gibet and Scarbo as well.

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