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Through the Jungle, with Machete and Keyboard

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/27/2014 -  
Marc-André Hamelin: Barcarolle (New York Premiere)
Nicolai Medtner: Piano Sonata in E Minor, “Night Wind”, Opus 25, No. 2 (Carnegie Hall Premiere)
Franz Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935

Marc-André Hamelin (Pianist)

M.-A. Hamelin (© Fran Kaufman)

Dressing for a recital by Marc-André Hamelin is never easy.

One could don t-shirt and jeans, for a ten-finger Cirque du Soleil, twirling, tightrope-running, making a thesaurus of acrobatic moves. Simultaneously, one could dress in tux and cummerbund, for he is a most romantic pianist, taking every possible opportunity to retard, accelerate and plunge into a candlelit enchanted evening. Nor can one dismiss a clown costume. Marc-André Hamelin pulls off his practical jokes with deception and a poker face. Finally, a helmet and flashlight should be ready. He is a musical archeologist, pulling the most obscure composer centuries of isolation into the light of day.

All these guises were apparent last night in a typical (which means a-typical) Hamelin concert.

Some of us have always loved the crazy rainforest foliage of Nicolai Medtner (I was introduced when another legerdemain of the piano, Earl Wild, gave me his recording), but most of the audience had only heard his name. Four Schubert Impromptus, written the year before his death, were played with emotion and intelligence. The Hamelin clown was shown in an encore Chopin “Minute” Waltz which ended in dazzling junk-heap of purposeful mistakes.

But the evening started with one of Hamelin’s own compositions, a Barcarolle, where one would have imagined, as he did in his Etudes, that he might parody a host of Barcarolle composers. But no, Mr. Hamelin seriously retained the atmosphere of a Venetian boatman. It was pure atmosphere, in fact, the 6/8 rhythms lofting from a deep-sea bass to the top, against the wave of notes (some atonal, most quite tonal) to the quiet end.

After the water, we had Hamelin’s wind. The “Night Wind” Sonata by Medtner, 30 uninterrupted minutes of a musical jungle, based on a minor Russian poem with the same surname. The piece does have a structure, some returning leitmotifs. But with Mr. Hamelin’s mastery, we would have missed the music if we’d looked for the architecture.

Calling it harmonically complex would be an error, for Medtner was no more forward than his classmate Rachmaninoff. But harmonically, it is an equation of harmonies within harmonies. Calling it structurally dense would be an understatement. This is a juggernaut of challenges which need as much physical endurance as digital technique.

When Earl Wild played it, this was a work of jewels and glittering measures. When Marc-André Hamelin played it last night, it was of such muscular density, such fanatically complex composition that one could never really keep up.

Did Hamelin ever make an error? I doubt it. But with such an impenetrable forest of melodies and chords, one wouldn’t know. Just say that when he finished (with an unlikely pianissimo in this very boisterous work), the feeling was that we had run with a machete, trying to cut through the underbrush, coming finally into the open air.

And thinking what a wonderful half-hour journey it had been.

(Incidentally, an even more difficult work was rattled off for an encore. Pavel de Schlözer’s Etude, which Rachmaninoff reportedly played to warm up his fingers.)

The evening ended with the Schubert Impromptus, and the French-Canadian took them with Viennese luxury. He never exaggerated, but relished each phrase, allowing the melodies to sing–really sing–before his three encores.

Standing ovations, though, are too little for Mr. Hamelin. Yes, he is technically, intellectually and, when needed, humorously as adept as it is possible. At times, in fact, it is unnerving, for he is a man of many guises. Fortunately, each guise is pursued with dedication and discipline. Each concert presents not only surprises, but the gifts of rare exhilaration.

Harry Rolnick



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