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The “Everything” Man

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
09/21/2010 -  
Marc-André Hamelin: Etudes and other works

Marc-André Hamelin (Piano)

M.-A. Hamelin at Poisson Rouge (© Herring Rollmop)

Think of the inconceivable: Bill Gates standing on a street-corner begging passers-by for 50 cents… Albert Einstein cheating on his physics examination… Marc-André picking up the most difficult piano score in the world and making a single error…

The first two propositions could be imagined (for a New Yorker cartoon perhaps). But the third is preposterous. Not yet 50, Mr. Hamelin picks up a score, and it belongs to him. Rzewski and Scharwenka, Brahms and Beethoven, Shostakovich and Shchedrin, Alkan, Henselt, Korngold and Marx. Most other pianists happily confine themselves to a dozen composers and play the odd rarity. With Mr. Hamelin, one picks up his discography at risk to one’s self-confidence, for he seems to embrace the entire piano literature.

No, I haven’t heard him play Bach, and don’t remember Schoenberg (though his Berg Sonata is stunning), but that wouldn’t bother him. And while critics take him seriously, he usually receives plaudits for his choices and virtuosity rather than his “reverent” or “breathtaking” or “state-of-the-art” playing.

Yet when a pianist friend told me that he considered Godowsky’s rewriting of all the Chopin Etudes the worst kitsch he had ever heard in his life, I borrowed a copy with Mr. Hamelin playing them and was enraptured. He turned what we now might call 19th Century overdone Chopin into a magical experience.

Mr. Hamelin has composed much music for himself over these years, but last night’s performance showed that for all his genius at the piano, he is merely a delightful (and obviously delighted) dabbler with his composing pen. One hates to think of Mr. Hamelin as a maker of salon music, but some of his music last night was very much for the 20th Century drawing-room.

(Then again, one must remember that Scriabin–the mystic futurist, plumbing the universe for new sounds and heaven-sent chords–spent his first 20 years making sentimental salon trash himself. Mr. Hamelin is in good company.

One can imagine Mr. Hamelin saying to himself, “Let’s see what is impossible to play, and I’ll play it.” Which he does. That was best illustrated in a work from his published score called Etude No. 4 in C minor “Étude à mouvement perpétuellement semblable, after Alkan”.

Whew. He demonstrated the difficulties to a rapt audience last night. First he played in the bass a ferociously difficult passage from Alkan’s Symphony for Piano. Then he played in the right hand, one of Alkan’s scale passages which made the ferocious initial moments seem like Morton Feldman.

Then he put the two together, added even more notes and performed this impossible feat while barely moving his head. It all sprang from tose dizzying fingers.

He played another Etude based on a Tchaikovsky song, and while adding notes, he gave it a Russian melodic flavor. Yes, he could have killed it with more virtuosity, but why bother? Mr. Hamelin does have wonderful taste.

Another experiment was with Schubert’s song, The Erl King. This was a rhythmic and melodic challenge, where he tried to compose a new work but keeping the exact syllables of Goethe’s original Gothic horror story.

But here was a problem. Mr. Hamelin did it, the poem became the study. But the original Schubert is so spooky, such an exercise in pure horror, that Mr. Hamelin’s rendition left all the blood and fear on the cutting-room floor. More successful was his reworking of Liadov’s Music Box, which was actually bitonal! A wonderful joke.

The entire performance had to be successful, since everything Mr. Hamelin does is successful. In a way, performing his own works is like his performances of Ornstein and Roslavetz. They were minor 20th Century composers for whom Mr. Hamelin had offered life. He is equally a minor composer, but Mr. Hamelin’s skills, joy in playing and delight in communicating everything made this 60-minute performance a moderately succulent performance.

Harry Rolnick



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