Marc-André Hamelin is perhaps the most equipped
pianist alive today to record an album of this sort (the only other
name to spring to mind is Volodos). Its very ethos squares exactly with
a pianist of Hamelin’s talents. One needs only to look at his Hyperion
discography to confirm this: discs of Alkan (including the Symphony
for Solo Piano on CDA67218), Busoni (the titanic Piano Concerto on CDA67143)
and Scriabin (Sonatas, CDA67131/2) all act as testimony. Certainly Hamelin’s
interpretations of Alkan have persuaded one, even before playing the
present disc, that nothing holds any perils for him.
Here, then, is fertile ground for any pianists out
there hunting for encores, although it is doubtful that any of them
could bring the winning combination of musicality, flair and sheer technique
which Hamelin achieves.
‘Kaleidoscope’ is the title of the disc; kaleidoscopic
could aptly describe Hamelin’s playing. Some may already be familiar
(Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R. and Poulenc’s Intermezzo in A
flat, for example). Others have lain in wait for an outing such
as this one and yet others are fresh from Mr Hamelin’s pen.
It was a good idea to set the tone of the disc with
Edna Bentz Wood’s Valse Phantastique. There are virtually no
details available about this composer (hence the omission of birth and
death dates from the title to this review). It is known that she was
a pupil of Busoni and Petri in Berlin: her short piece aptly sets up
a nostalgic mood. As is the case with Woods, the list of composers includes
some better known in the early twentieth century than now, including
Alfredo Casella, whose Deux Contrastes of 1916-18 are magical.
The tuneful first takes Chopin’s A major Prelude as a starting point
and contrasts with the wonderfully titled second, ‘Antigrazioso’, which
is spiky and Stravinskian (I kept on thinking of Circus Elephants).
Michalowski’s Etude after Chopin’s A flat Impromptu is treated
to scintillating fingerwork (one of many examples in the recital): it
is up to the listener to decide whether this Michalowski’s lightening
of Chopin is appropriate (it is surely dependent on context as to whether
Chopin is trivialised here). If you know that Michalowski numbered Moscheles,
Reinecke and Tausig amongst his teachers and Wanda Landowska amongst
his pupils, that will be some indication of the difficulty.
Hamelin knows exactly when to apply a Romantic rubato
(Godowsky’s Alt Wien is adequate evidence of this) and when to
‘play it straight’ (or in the present context, ‘play it straighter’).
As is fitting from a pianist with such an extensive repertoire, Hamelin
has chosen items to illustrate his major strengths. Poulenc’s Intermezzo
is accorded a dreamy, smooth legato while Kapustin’s Toccatina
is irresistibly jazzy. Hamelin’s own Etude No. 3 after Paganini/Liszt
shows off his own ability to make a piano ‘laugh’, whilst his Etude
No. 6 (a homage to Domenico Scarlatti) is what can only be described
as great fun: although he is careful never to forget his point of reference.
A wonderful surprise comes in the form of Massenet’s
Valse folle of 1898. As Jeremy Nicholas says in his accompanying
notes, ‘To those who know Massenet as the composer of Manon,
Werther and the ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs,
his Valse folle is the aural equivalent of being hit in the face
with a brick’. Miles away from the French lyricism of these works, it
contains an intentionally brash ending which obviously appeals to Hamelin.
Many, many delights are in store within this encore
hunter’s treasure-trove. Careful programming and expert piano playing
ensures that a straight play-through is a pleasure.