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International Keyboard Institute & Festival (2) : Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Mannes Concert Hall, New York City, 26.7.2008 (BH)


Mozart: Sonata in A minor, K. 310

Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op. 27

Scriabin: Sonata No. 7, Op. 64

Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60

For the last few years strategist Marc-André Hamelin has masterminded a dramatic end to the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, this summer celebrating its 10th anniversary.  For two weeks, in the intimate hall at Mannes College of Music seating scarcely 200 people, Jerome Rose and Julie Kedersha present a distinguished line-up of soloists to an often rapt crowd.  (This particular evening had one of the quietest audiences I’ve heard in years.)

From the very first attack in the Sonata in A minor which almost literally kicked off the program, this was not reticent, polite Mozart, but one with spine, and a firm one at that—rhythmically precise, stingingly crisp.  Hamelin’s huge sound almost seemed a rebuke to the lightness normally accorded the composer.  It’s not the usual way to play Mozart, but I’d guess that many in the audience found it refreshing.  One has to admire Hamelin for the forthright way he presents works he loves: if the four composers here had anything in common, it was a red-blooded commitment by a master who can play them any way he chooses.

The two Chopin Nocturnes were exquisite, with dynamic shading about as subtle as it gets. (During the entire evening Hamelin's soft moments were very impressive.)  The C sharp minor was particularly dramatic, reaching a climax that seemed to foreshadow the Scriabin to come.  And the D flat major seemed to advance and retreat, now an explosion of extroversion, now a sepia shade pulled over a window.

The devilish Scriabin Seventh Sonata (the "White Mass") was showed Hamelin at his most powerful, with huge masses of sound that seemed to link it to the Ives that followed.  Chromatic, mysterious, chilly, even a little weird, it is one of the composer's most intense and ecstatic pieces, and a perfect match for Hamelin's technique and temperament.  I will never forget the moment when his hands reached the high end of the keyboard to deliver a piercing cluster of repeated chords, attacking my ears like darts hurled to a bull's-eye.  Afterward, a friend said, "What was that?" and indeed, Hamelin had recaptured the sheer strangeness of the composer’s lurid colors.

But for most of us, the Ives was the climax.  Although many probing pianists today tackle this massive endurance test, Hamelin arguably makes the most sense out of its sprawling structure, and the ability to bring clarity in passages that can seem almost unplayable.  And then there is his sense of humor: the folksy "hoedown" portions almost come as surprises, like someone accidentally spilling out a joke at a funeral.

"Emerson" had both thunder and poetry, and in "Hawthorne," earthquakes of feverish arpeggios offset the composer's imaginative use of a small wooden block to create pianissimo clusters.  In "The Alcotts" and "Thoreau" I was struck over and over by Hamelin’s gentleness, a feather-light touch almost more impressive than his fortissimos, when the music erupts into complexity and violence.  But the mood seemed to hark back to the Scriabin, and that’s a master for you: an artist whose programmatic choices always find interconnected waterways.

Given the athleticism of the Ives, I didn’t expect any encores, but Hamelin did two, both of which he wrote himself: first, Little Nocturne (2007), a dreamy miniature in a fairly conservative style—again, not too unlike the Scriabin.  And then, again announcing from the piano, "the Diabelli Variation that Beethoven never wrote," he launched into a 30-second riff on "Chopsticks."  If almost everyone in the audience was stifling laughter, it was not because it wasn’t totally hilarious, but because to laugh out loud would be to miss more extraordinary playing.

Bruce Hodges

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