The stuff of which legends are made
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor – Harmonies poétiques et religieuses: “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” – Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H.
Samuil Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6
Claude Debussy: Images (Book I)
Leopold Godowsky: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
M.-A. Hamelin (© Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Years ago, when old-timers were still around, I would often ask them about their recollections of pianists such as Rachmaninov, Paderewski, Friedman, Moiseiwitsch or Hoffman. God, did I envy their luck in having been able to hearm that they were so lucky and heard all those masters livewere no longer around! Well, these days every time I hear the Canadian-born virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin, it seems to me that the future generations of piano enthusiasts will ask future old-timers (now belonging to my generation) a similar question such as “did you hear Hamelin live”? For there is no doubt that when we hear him, as we did at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 1st, we witness some of the greatest piano playing of our times even now when we’re not exactly starved for pianists who can play practically anything and execute the most difficult scores effortlessly.
This latest recital featured, as often happens with Mr. Hamelin’s programs, an array of works that are familiar, somewhat familiar and total rarities. Regarding the last category, one is always astonished how an artist with a heavy load of concerts can find time to learn those fiendishly difficult scores, let alone memorize them. Well, have I mentioned that we are talking about a person with superhuman capabilities? That and generally that should be enough to provide the answer to all such questions. This time Hamelin devoted the whole first half of his recital to Liszt; to open the program, he chose the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13, a bit of an audacious beginning I must say. The first part lassan combined a declamatory, rhetorical character but surprisingly generous dose of flirtatiousness. Under Mr. Hamelin’s infallible fingers, those endless fiorituras, little cadenzas and other trimmings were dispatched with nonchalance and without a trace of effort or change of pulse. In his portrayal of “Hungarian manner”, our pianist perfectly captured a sense of wailing and gave us to believe that those embellishments sounded like glissandos played on a Hungarian/gypsy cimbalom. The fast part friska started indeed very fast and for anyone else it would have been an unplayable tempo. That blinding speed, however, caused some textures to be border-line blurred, especially if one was sitting farther to the back of this resonant auditorium. There is supposedly a tradition coming straight from composer to add more virtuoso material to the score: Mr. Hamelin being himself a composer known for his virtuosic writing added some few embellishments, though far less complex than his cadenza in Rhapsody No. 2. As I indicated, it was an audacious beginning of a program and a reasonable question would be what may possibly come after the blazing cadenza of Rhapsody No. 13? Well, there were enough pyrotechnics and fireworks reserved for the rest of the program and for the encores.
As if to repent for the sin of virtuosity the next piece was “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a 16 minute long music journey “of troubled soul, buffeted by storms and doubts, toward a rebirth of faith” to quote but one of the descriptions of that noble, deeply personal composition. Again Hamelin proved to be a born Liszt player and what impressed this listener was the fact that even in “cinematic”, bombastic, moments of ecstasy he was able to bring nobility to the score. One had to marvel at control of touch, textures and dynamics that allowed us to hear every note with crystalline clarity even in the quietest moments. I thought that this time Hamelin’s proverbial objectivity of approach was an asset and one very welcome in the treatment of this rather overblown religious essay.
The bombast came back in the next work, Fantasia and Fugue on B.A.C.H., which had its origin as an organ piece composed in 1855 and some fifteen years later was reworked for the piano. The name of the great master is used both in the notes of the theme and as a tribute by his devotee, who previously transcribed some organ preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian for piano. It showed Liszt as a master of transformation of the four-note motif in a work that was a compendium of compositional techniques in Liszt’s time. Fantasy and Fugue make use of all the traditional tools from the composer’s arsenal: myriad notes, arpeggios, thundering chords, roaring sonorities... showing all the possibilities of piano writing. It is an impressively astounding work, though it left this listener more in awe than in love. As for the performance, I doubt the composer himself could have come close to Mr. Hamelin; he ripped through this dense score with breathtaking virtuosity, abandon, technical assurance, and richness of sound. This pianist executes the most formidable feats of piano playing with a minimum of movement, let alone swaying or raising his hands off the keyboard. In listening to our virtuoso, I thought that if we must hear this somewhat long-winded and overbearing composition of Liszt, it had better be performed as well as Mr .Hamelin did that evening at Carnegie Hall.
After intermission came a novelty in form of Sonata No. 4 by the Russian pianist-composer Samuil Feinberg, whose music Mr. Hamelin has been championing lately and whose piano sonatas he will likely record. I must say that prior to last year’s recitals, when our pianist played the first two of the sonatas, I knew this Russian master’s compositions mainly through the fantastically demanding transcription of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony: I still wait for Mr. Hamelin to perform it, as he is one of the few who could do this transcription justice.
When confronted with music that one has previously not heard, it is almost instinctive to search for comparisons: “what does it remind me of?”. In the Feinberg Sonata, I heard echoes of chromaticism encountered in the last movement of Chopin B-flat minor Sonata (his most advanced and farthest reaching piano work), and some of the whirlwind heard in Rachmaninov scores but primarily strong echoes of Scriabin, perhaps Scriabin-on-steroids. It should all not come as a surprise considering that any and all of Russian pianists, those who composed and those who only were interpreters, must have intimately known the composers who came to my mind. That anxiety and turmoil and use of one motif (as in his Sonata No. 9), all evoke Scriabin and colors Feinberg’s own work. Is it a cliché to say we have heard an authoritative and magisterial performance? As I very often feel when hearing this pianist play less well known music (but not only when, of course!), he gets so deeply into the score that he starts to possess it.
The Debussy First Book of Images offered similar, though expected, revelations: it was simply as beautifully and sensitively played as possible. The flawless tonal control and sensitivity in the “Reflets dans l’eau”, the crystalline sound and glistening sonorities not to mention the absolute evenness of figurations and multi-layered textures in the concluding “Mouvement” created a interpretation that is hard to equal. This brought back memories of his other performances of the Debussy Preludes and other works played just as compellingly as what we heard here.
And then , in the Strauss-Godowsky paraphrase Wine, Women and Song came the “old Hamelin”, as if to remind us that though he may have abandoned some of the super-virtuoso repertory he is still able, on a moment’s notice, to come back and conquer effortlessly. In his time, Leopold Godowsky was considered one of the supreme masters of the keyboard, both as a performer and composer of fiendishly hard arrangements of works such as the Chopin Etudes or the well-known waltzes by Johann Strauss. Godowsky adorns these simple tunes with garlands of extra lines, embellishments, sophisticated harmonies, and constant three-hands (perhaps even four-hands!) effects and expects the performer to toss them off. Only very few can do this and do it as effortlessly as does Hamelin with his titanic command of the keyboard. To that he nonchalantly adds old-fashioned elegance, a most delicate tonal beauty, or thundering sonorities, teasing his listener seductively. Both in the past and in the present there are more and more pianists who attempt to perform these paraphrases and many of them easily conquer the first part, which is to negotiate the notes. Hamelin, as a true magician, allows us to believe that it really is not all that hard. For a magician, that is.
There were three encores that the enthused audience was able to elicit from Mr. Hamelin. Here I wondered if the choice of Debussy’s Prelude “Feux d’artifice” (“Fireworks”) was just a way to come back to this composer or an example of the artist commenting on his own performance. It was again an astonishing rendition seen as if in different colors than usual. That was followed by Hamelin’s own virtuoso Toccata and finally a true farewell in the form of the last piece in Schumann cycle Waldszenen which is called “Abschied” and means “farewell”. It was tender, lovely, songful, and beautifully sung. As often with this pianist playing, it was the stuff of which legends are made.