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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Po zarostlém chodníčku (On the overgrown path) Book 1 (1900-1911) [32:04]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Waldszenen, Op. 82 (1849) [22:34]  
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838) [19:48]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. March 2013, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK
reviewed as a Studio Master 24/96 download
HYPERION CDA68030 [74:26]

Quebec-born Marc-André Hamelin is not just a keyboard virtuoso, he’s a veritable force of nature. That’s amply demonstrated in his own 12 Études in all the minor keys; and then there’s his coruscating Alkan and Rzewski. As one of many distinguished pianists on Hyperion’s books he rarely fails to impress, although I was mildly surprised by the choice of repertoire on offer here. Not the kind of showpieces he does so well, perhaps, but a challenging combination of Janáček at his darkest and most ambiguous, and Schumann at his easeful, engaging best. As for Hyperion they have an enviable reputation for top-flight piano recordings; indeed, I’d go so far as to say they’re among the best in the business, which makes this collection all the more alluring.
Janáček’s set of miniatures, On the overgrown path, consists of two books; the first – played here – has 10 pieces, the second five. They’ve fared quite well on disc, with recordings from the likes of Leif Ove Andsnes (Virgin), Roland Pöntinen (BIS) and Andras Schiff (ECM). As for the Schumann cycles – given pride of place on the cover and in the liner-notes, despite coming second in the order of play – the list of competing versions is much longer. No matter; in Hamelin’s case comparatives are rarely useful, for he’s one of those very individual artists – and that’s not code for wayward or eccentric - who brings something new and authoritative to everything he plays.
Much has been written of the inscrutability of the Janáček pieces, whose evocative titles - A blown-away leaf (No. 2), Unutterable anguish (No. 5) and The barn owl has not flown away! (No. 10) – seem innocent enough. Don’t be fooled, for they conceal knotty utterances full of unexpected progressions and unsettled harmonies. Hamelin homes in on this tense dialectic at the outset; for instance the circular charm of Our evenings (No. 1) is soon interrupted by something altogether more peremptory, even sinister. Finely articulated and very well recorded, Hamelin’s playing has shape and clarity; rhythms and dynamics are well judged too.
The piano is ideally balanced, its timbres are true and there’s a pleasing naturalness to it all. In lesser hands these pieces could so easily become an unvarying sequence of opposing moods, yet Hamelin’s impressive range of colours and rhythmic nuances makes each piece seem utterly individual. This is finely calibrated music-making whose very proportionality and restraint renders Unbearable anguish – with its mesmeric figures - and In tears all the more poignant. Hamelin’s manifold talents are sure to hold you in their thrall from start to finish; they certainly did me.
How does one follow that? With a miniaturist who inspired so many, Janáček included. Hyperion have programmed Op. 82 first, and what a sunny glade it seems after that sharp and gloomy thicket. Hamelin is just as comfortable with Schumann’s high Romanticism, whether it’s the pensive charm of Eintritt (Entry) and Einsame blumen (Lonely flowers) or the virile strut of Jäger auf der Lauer (Hunters on the lookout). Intimate of scale and execution but never self-conscious Hamelin’s Waldszenen is a daisy chain of delights. A friendly, heart-lifting landscape in every sense, this is Schumann at his most inventive and disarming; it’s such a pleasure to hear a pianist so alive to this composer’s sensibilities. The final Abschied, beautifully poised, is imbued here with a rare, unforced loveliness.
After those bucolic excursions and asides Schumann’s Op. 15 – which he described to Clara as ‘quaint little things’ – explores another landscape, that of childhood. He may have labelled them ‘simple pieces’ but that surely has more to do with their child-like reminiscences than the level of skill required to play them. Hamelin is suitably virtuosic when required – Nos. 2, 6 and 9 are despatched with real élan – but I’d have liked a bit more suppleness in No. 4, the ubiquitous Träumerei (No. 7) and No. 11. That said, the sheer range and depth of piano tone is exploited to the full.
In the presence of such fine, intuitive playing it seems churlish to nit-pick, even if it is only the once. Hamelin’s is a prodigious talent, intelligently used in this divergent repertoire, so his fans need not delay in acquiring this disc or download. Hyperion’s easy-to-navigate website and Download Manager – not to mention their real-world pricing – makes the latter an attractive alternative for music buyers. As for Harriet Smith’s thoughtful liner-notes, they are a pleasure to peruse.
Enchanting; Hyperion’s pied piper does it again.
Dan Morgan