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Master of a Universe

New York
Theresa L. Kaufman Auditorium, 92nd St. Y
01/30/2013 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 541 (arr. Theodor Szántó)
Ferruccio Busoni: Sonatina seconda
Claude Debussy: Images (Book I) – L’Isle joyeuse
Marc-André Hamelin: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (New York Premiere)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Preludes in G major, Opus 32, Nr. 5, & in G-sharp minor, Opus 32, Nr. 12 – Sonata Nr. 2, Opus 36

Marc-André Hamelin (Pianist)

M.-A. Hamelin (© Fran Kaufman)

Marc-André Hamelin could never be accused of wearing his heart on his sleeve. His heart–as well as his velocity, shading, color and passion–come from his mind, his emotions, and his–allegedly–20 fingers. (Playing his own composition, it was obvious that this tonal magician must have a dozen more digits hidden somewhere up that sleeve!)

As usual with Mr. Hamelin, his recital last night at the 92nd St. Y was most unusual. It was audacious, unconventional, yet somehow everything was linked together. Starting with the kind of Bach transcription that old J.S at his little Weimar organ would have been startled at, he proceeded with five works all written at the dawn of the First World War. He merged opposites (Debussy was played immediately after Busoni without space for applause), his own Paganini Variations included quotes, not only from Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, but another Paganini caprice. And just to link this most outlandish, sometimes hilarious work, he quoted from Rachmaninoff, three of whose works would end the program.

In other hands, such linkage would be secondary to the performance. But the Canadian virtuoso’s repertory encompasses every musical spheres, so, like a quantum scientist, he can could link the keyboard universe. And while some critics cavil that no artist can play everything brilliantly, Mr. Hamelin lives in a world where he reigns supreme over each piece he plays.

Just in case any in the full house were dozing, he opened with a ferocious outburst, a G minor chord for the Bach Fantasia and Fugue, and then, in this perhaps overblown arrangement by the Hungarian Theodor Szántó played with an organ density and a piano’s brightness. This was the kind of arrangement for those who like Stokowski’s more bombastic Bach transcriptions (which I do).

The following Busoni Second Sonatina I had never heard before, but since Mr. Hamelin is the most accomplished living pianist for the Busoni Concerto, I expected only the best. Nothing was Italianate about this, though. It was dense, furious, a pianist’s nightmare, perhaps, but Mr. Hamelin made those atonal notes glow.

He audaciously kept his hands on the keyboard, so nobody dared applaud, and he went into Debussy’s first book of Images. Where his first two pieces of the evening echoed the Shades of Death, the Debussy had what Mr. Hamelin had avoided so long in his career. Subtle delicacies, tinted colors, a Rameau “Homage” which was hardly Baroque but still elegant, and a “Mouvement” which danced. L’Isle Joyeuse was played with equal delight before the intermission.

(Illogical note: I wonder whether librettist Lorenz Hart had been listening to Debussy when he penned his immortal line, “We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.”)

The Hamelin humor erupted twice. Once in an encore of Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz which erupted into some crazy dissonances. But his own Paganini Variations–I counted about 16 of them–turned the Steinway keyboard into a centrifugal machine for his fingers. He went insane with speed at the beginning, slowing down for those quotes from other composers, and finished with more dazzlements. It goes without saying (and no insult to the sophisticated audience) that they gave wilder applause to this feu d’artifice than they would have given the Hammerklavier.

The two Rachmaninoff Preludes are well known and were played with lapidary elegance. The Second Sonata is rarely played, but here, that most passionate Russian virtuoso was given extra a yearning, a passion, and, in the second movement, the grace which seemed heaven-sent. That might be exaggeration. But coming after the monastic recital by Radu Lupu this week, Mr. Hamelin’s extrovert playing radiated like sunshine.

Harry Rolnick



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