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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Concert Review: The Man of Steel

Marc-André Hamelin at the 92nd Street Y.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman © 2013 Marc-André 
There's nothing conventional about Marc-André Hamelin. The Canadian-born pianist is an authentic virtuoso. His recitals combine fierce technical chops with in-depth explorations of the dark corners of the catalogue. For piano cognonscenti, they are nearly sacred events.

On Wednesday night at the 92nd St. Y's Kaufman Auditorium, Mr. Hamelin  started with the G Minor Organ Fantasia and Fugue of Johann Sebastian Bach. Playing a transcription by Theodor Szántó, Mr. Hamelin hammered out the chords, lending a thunderous weight to Bach's musical ideas. The fugue emerged from this turmoil, putting the work's ideas back in order before revealing the cosmic concepts written into Bach's figured bass.

The Sonatina Seconda by Ferruccio Busoni is that composer pushing the envelope with a leaden bump of pianistic complexity. Mr. Hamelin seemed to relish the bleak colors called forth in this music, grim, almost atonal fragments that coalesce into a dark, coherent whole. Playing with muscle and drive, he made the sound of the Steinway like a crack of thunder in the intimate space of Kaufmann Concert Hall.

The works by Debussy that followed were somewhat sunnier. L'Isle joyeuse was paired with Book I of Images, with Mr. Hamelin expertly evoking the limpid, descriptive phrases that Debussy used to recreate the sound of wind and water. The Hommage à Rameau looked back two centuries to France's great baroque composer. Finally Mouvement featured Mr. Hamelin's brand of muscular pianism, expressing its staccato rhythms and subtle thematic development.

The second half of the program started with the New York premiere of Mr. Hamelin's own composition: a jaw-dropping set of Variations on the 24th Violin Caprice. Mr. Hamelin reworks Paganini's famous theme repeatedly, twisting the melody into almost atonal intervals, breaking the theme down into its components and reassembling it into fascinating new forms. In the later variations he ventures into the musical territory of Led Zeppelin and Beethoven, including winks to the former's "Whole Lotta Love" and the latter's Fifth Symphony.

The final section of the program featured three works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, who like Mr. Hamelin was a composer also known for his jaw-dropping talent at the keyboard. The set started with two Preludes, the No. 5 in G Major and the No. 12 in G# minor. This matched set resulted in some of the most fluid playing of the evening although the tempo remained brisk. Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 followed: a workmanlike example of that composer's later style. Although Mr. Hamelin's performance was technically proficient, the work itself suffers from the absence of the brilliant thematic colors that make this composer's best output dazzle the ear.

Mr. Hamelin took two encores. He announced the first with this: "People always ask me why I play this as an encore. The answer is, because I love it," he launched into a lovely and light-fingered account of the Allegro from Mozart's B Sonata, with thrilling arpeggios and keyboard runs that made the audience respond in tumultuous fashion. He then followed with his own "Chopinata" Jazz Waltz, incorporating that composer's melodies into yet another dazzling virtuoso display.

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