Recovering, we were told, from an illness, Marc-André
Hamelin decided on a last-minute change of programme. Instead of Schumann’s
Fantasiestücke, we heard the Fantaisie on C, Op.
17, a work I would have thought several degrees more challenging. Perhaps
it was just familiar to the pianist (there is a recent recording on
The fact is that the first part of the recital was
superb. The monumental quality of the Busoni ‘transcription’ of the
Chaconne from the D minor Partita suited his mentality
perfectly. The first thing to strike the listener is Hamelin’s piano
sound, which can only be described as colossal. This, coupled with an
almost tangible aura of stately inevitability resulted in an awe-inspiring
interpretation. It was the best possible way to begin the recital.
It is interesting to watch Hamelin play; even in such
a mobile piece as the Schumann Fantasie, physical movement was
kept to a minimum. All the effort was channelled into the music itself.
After the Romantic outpouring of the opening left-hand semiquavers,
Hamelin demonstrated exemplary phrasal timing over this bed of sound.
As the performance went on, however, it became evident that the same
sense of architecture he had shown in the Chaconne was present
here, too, and it will be that element which lingers in this listener’s
memory, despite much to admire along the way, particularly as regards
voice-leading. Only the March, curiously, became laboured.
It would be difficult to follow such a first half.
As it turned out, the decision to include one of his own pieces, a set
of seven pieces collectively called Con intissimo Sentimento,
was a flawed one. Pianist-composers, once order of the day, are now
a rarity, and Hamelin’s attempt to style himself in this fashion was
an uncomfortable one. He himself writes that he does not think it a
good idea to perform the set in its entirety, and yet that is exactly
what he did. The bittersweet harmonies of the first Ländler
soon paled into a non-descript harmonic language which itself sometimes
further degenerated into ‘easy listening’. Certainly latter this term
seems apt as these pieces demand precious little effort from the audience.
Perhaps the greatest surprise is that the pieces were so unshowily subdued,
coming from the pen of someone who devours demisemiquavers for breakfast.
Thankfully Alkan brought a return to Hamelin-like ‘normality’
(unattainable for the vast majority of mere mortals) in the shape of
the Symphony for Solo Piano (Nos. 4-7 of the 12 Etudes dans
les tons mineurs, Op. 39). This was simply breathtaking. Hamelin’s
advocacy of Alkan is clearly one hundred percent (he has recorded this
piece on CDA67218: check out his other Alkan recordings for Hyperion,
also). It was not only the sovereign technique or the way the music
unfolded naturally: all aspects of the piece were beautifully presented.
The chording in the funeral march was luminous, and beautiful is the
only word to describe the Trio of the Menuet.
There were inevitable encores (Brahms and Albéniz),
but it was the two extremities of the recital, the Bach/Busoni and the
Alkan, which made the evening special.