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Classic and Classical

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
04/08/2008 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K.297 (“Paris”) – Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271
Franz Josef Haydn: Piano Concerto in D Major, Hob XVIII-11 – Symphony No. 104 in D Major (“London”)

Marc-André Hamelin (Piano)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner (Conductor)

With a rash on his hands, the original soloist here, Murray Perahia, withdrew, but the replacement of Marc-André Hamelin with the legendary founder of St. Martin in the Fields conducting, added some extra glamour to this concert of Haydn and Mozart. Perahia’s piano is somewhat predictable: not less likeable by any means, but probably minus unpredictable revelations.

Hamelin, though, is in a class by himself, frequently playing the unplayable. He is as much at home with Rachmaninoff as with Bach. He discovers the most unexpected virtuoso works of the 19th Century, and while few are among the “greats”, his discoveries are always interesting, always colorful. Rather than simply playing Chopin etudes, he plays the Godowsky augmented etudes. He plays Scriabin with mystic fire, and Busoni with Promethean largeness.

Technique means nothing to him. Hamelin told me once that he was “born” to play and never thought of anything else. “Technique,” he said, “is not in your hands. Technique is simply being able to realize the musical goals which you have in your own mind.”

What a surprise, then, that Hamelin had never ever played with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields before last night! Yet, his two concertos came out like velvet with this great orchestra.

A word on that orchestra. Sir Neville Marriner once was noted for making more recordings than any other classical conductor. And I, for one, wish he hadn’t ever made a single disc. Because listeners think they know this orchestra by its recorded sound, and the reality, when live, is totally different.

The Academy never needed “ancient” instruments to make its point. The group is larger than a chamber group, but certainly no symphony orchestra. What it gives, then, is probably the music which Mozart or Haydn would have wanted to hear. Certain Haydn never had a flute which gave such a thrilling solo as the slow movement of the D Major Piano Concerto. I doubt if those awful hunting horns of Esterhazy Palace had such faultless playing as here. And the breadth of its strings resounded through Avery Fisher Hall with a radiance which is rarely heard.

So now you put together Hamelin into the bubbling Haydn piano concerto, and you forget all those harpsichord renditions. Hamelin turns it into a soufflé. The octave runs were taken with ease. The song of the poco adagio movement was touching, and the Wanda Landowska cadenza—which sounded like a Scarlatti sonata—was equally elegiac. The Hungarian-style finale was more presto than allegro assai, but give the pianist his due.

Equally give him his honors in the Mozart concerto, where he played his own cadenza. More than simply Hamelin, this was a partnership, with the agile orchestra and the nimble pianist gliding in and out from each other. Hamelin’s own cadenza in the second movement had the weightiness of early Beethoven, but the movement itself needed just that gravitas before the headlong last movement (with a funky little minuet in honor of the dancer who premiered the work).

With the middle-period “Paris” symphony under Sir Neville, one understood the comment by Sibelius that “Mozart was the ultimate orchestrater”. And with the finale of Haydn’s 104th Symphony, Sir Neville turned an orchestra which can sound staid on recordings into a group giving majesty, grace, determination, and a limpid lively finale.

Harry Rolnick



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