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Friday, November 3, 2017

Concert Review: An Orchestra of Ten

Marc-André Hamelin returns to Carnegie Hall. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marc-André Hamelin and his orchestra.
Photo by Canetty Clarke © 2017 Hyperion Records.
The Canadian-born Boston-based pianist Marc-André Hamelin is not the biggest star to play his instrument. He doesn’t gyrate on his bench, flail his arms or wear short skirts that scandalize traditionalists. No. On Wednesday night, he came to Carnegie Hall, programmed unbelievably difficult stuff, and then blew the audience through the back wall of Stern Auditorium.

The sad part is, this hallowed venue was only half full to hear a musician of this caliber.

Mr. Hamelin made his reputation as a fearsome technician who dug deeply into the huge reserves of 19th century repertory by composers that have largely been forgotten. He has championed (and recorded, for Hyperion) the music of Alkan, Godowsky, Henselt and others. In recent years his programming has gotten more prosaic, with explorations of Haydn and Mozart. This concert opened with a return to the exotic finger-busters of yore: three major pieces by Franz Liszt.

These works offered three different sides of this composer’s complex personality. Mr. Hamelin started with the bipartite Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 by Liszt. This is a two-part work. A slow first movement incorporates Magyar and Romany colors in the piano writing, with eloquent arpeggios given a smooth legato sheen by the artist. The second half is pure guts, envisioning the wild abandon of camp musicians playing folk tunes of ancient origins: kind of an early version of the cultural archeology that would later become the stock in trade of Béla Bartók.

The centerpiece of the triptych was an appropriately meditative work: the "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude"  from Harmonies poetiques et religieuse. Liszt, who famously took a minor holy order later in his career, is in the celestial mode here, exploring spirituality through chromatic chords and a slow elevation from minor darkness into major light. Mr. Hamelin showed how Liszt dug deeply into his technique to mine some of the same shafts that would later be explored by his son-in-law Richard Wagner.

A third aspect of Liszt was presented: the composer as serious theoretical musician, a creator of abstract works that terrify would-be performers eve as they hypnotize listeners. This was represented by the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H (B flat-A natural-C-B natural in German notation) a tribute to both that composer and Liszt’s own skill as a creator of counterpoint. Mr. Hamelin blazed through the two sections of this complicated work, unleashing a storm of interwoven notes, delicate structures of sound that stood with steely brightness as they were battered by the harmonies that erupted from the bass end of the keyboard.

The second half opened with the most interesting item of the evening: Samuil Feinberg’s Sonata No. 4 in E Flat minor. This proved to be a single movement in a style redolent of the later works of Alexander Scriabin. Feinberg is an undeservedly forgotten composer whose career unfortunately collided with the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia. This performance, with its dark minor storm clouds and harmonic lines that threatened to rip themselves to pieces even as they wound around each other in an ever-tightening death grip made a good case for him to be the next major Russian composer unearthed by the fearless Mr. Hamelin.

The most prosaic work of the night was Book I of Debussy’s Images, played with delicacy, grace (and yes in the finale) power and speed. It was followed by Leopold Godowsky’s inventive Symphonic Metamorphosis on tunes from Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. With its revolutionary approach to orchestration using the ten fingers available to the soloist, it left the Lisztian approach to transcription in the proverbial, historical dust. Three stunning encores followed, played to the dwindling audience. The most impressive of these was Mr. Hamelin’s own Toccata which stood proudly alongside the other difficult works on the program as a pice worthy of further performance and exploration.

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