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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Concert Review: The Double Black Diamond

Marc-André Hamelin at Hunter College.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marc-André Hamelin gets in touch with nature.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Any recital by Marc-André Hamelin, the extraordinary Canadian pianist and composer is a cause for celebration for piano lovers, drawn to his combination of sober musicianship and always-impressive technical skil. This Sunday, Mr. Hamelin appeared at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival, playing a challenging program of Liszt and Chopin along with Toward the Center, a large-scale modern composition by Yehudi Wyner, a contemporary American composer who has taught at Harvard, Yale and Brandeis.

The concert opened with a triptych of early Liszt works. Apparition No. 1 was written when the composer was just 22. A simple ascending figure for the left hand supports the main theme in the right, with Mr. Hamelin's playing sure and liquid. His foot manned the pedal changing dynamic with a steady rhythmic application that made the music seem to change colors as he played. The concert etude Waldesrauschen ("Forest Murmurs", no connection to the work by Richard Wagner)  combined a sublime trill in the right hand with the melodic material emerging in the left. Mr. Hamelin  reversed hands to thrilling effect before dive-bombing the lower register of the piano creating a thunderous roll of sound.

Crossing hands is also central to the technique of Un sospiro ("A sigh"), which is written for three staves, with the third central measure played with the thumbs and index fingers of either hand. Mr. Hamelin played this stunning and difficult music with a liquid ease, never sacrificing melody or taste for mere flashy effect. Taken together these three pieces show the serious side of Liszt as a developer of music for his chosen instrument, using his breath-taking technique to forge new paths and change not only the way the piano was played but how music was written for it as well.

Considering the breadth and depth of Liszt's catalogue, his transcriptions and paraphrases of other composers' works often get short shrift. With the second Paraphrase from Verdi's Ernani, Mr. Hamelin set out to correct that oversight. This work (drawn from the conspiracy chorus and tomb scene of Verdi's opera) uses the left hand to create the effect of Verdi's suspenseful choral writing, creating thick piano textures and reaching a thunderous climax. The massive Réminiscences de Norma (it's 17 minutes) used the best tunes from Bellini's opera (with the notable exception of "Casta Diva".) Mr. Hamelin recreated the blood-and-thunder excitement and brilliant singing technique that are hallmarks of this work.

The second half started with Toward the Center, the 1988 composition by Yehudi Wyner. Mr. Wyner's composition is all colors and shade, an extensive work built from material exposed in its brilliant opening. This jazz-like opening burst from the keyboard, angular and awkward yet the seed from which the entire composition grew. A falling bell-like interval recurred between each section, giving way to atonal excursions and explorations of modes and tonal colors. The work varied in intensity from section to section, with Mr. Hamelin steering nimbly through its different sound-worlds and arriving at a conclusion that slowly faded out into blissful silence.

In his too-brief life, Chopin focused all of his efforts on the piano. He died before he could even contemplate giving the world a symphony and it is unknown if he ever planned one. However, his Sonata No. 2 is one of his most symphonic creations, with four movements that correspond to the Beethovenian symphonic model, centered (like that elder composer's Eroica Symphony around a minor-key funeral dirge. This is an entire work obsessed with death, from the grim opening Allegro that gallops as if Chopin were representing the hooves of an undertaker's carriage to the wry-faced Scherzo, its graveside capering a hint of ideas that would later appear in Mahler.

In Mr. Hamelin's hands, the four movements sprang to vivid life, his playing accentuating the orchestral character of Chopin's thought process and the aural "depth of field" that ten fingers can produce. Indeed, the funeral march with its solemn, obsessive ostinato broke freely from its place in the popular imagination and schoolyard rhyme, showing its originality of concept and its power to rend emotion from a listener's psyche. The fast finale is terrifying, Chopin's expression of terror at the idea of premature burial, crashing to its close in a grim final chord.

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