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RECITAL REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Friday, January 22, 2016
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin

INSPIRED SCHUBERT IN BRILLIANT HAMELIN RECITAL IN WEILL

by Terry McNeill
Friday, January 22, 2016

In addition his brilliant pianism, Marc-André Hamelin has built a substantial international career by embracing unconventional repertoire and innovative transcriptions. Who else plays Catoire, Hofmann, Chopin-Godowsky, Dukas, Medtner and…Hamelin?

So the Canadian’s Jan. 22 Weill Hall recital was a surprise with the first and last works being popular Mozart and Schubert Sonatas. But they were great Sonatas, especially the opening Mozart D Major work (K. 576) that was played with easy grace and harmonic highlighting. Even when the music turned playful the tempos were never rushed. Purists might abhor the pianist’s ritards in the final two movements, but Mr. Hamelin is a romantic at heart, and the music can accept such warm treatment.

Many of the Allegro’s speedy right hand scales were on the edge of blurring, but Mr. Hamelin let a lot of repose into the Adagio, abetted by one delicious ritard. Jaunty playing characterized the finale. It may not have been Mozart to everyone’s taste, but I found it persuasive.

Turning to Book II of Debussy’s Images, Mr. Hamelin spun a lovely web of color with sensitive pedaling and phrase nuance to generate a memorable reading. Both the “Cloches á travers” and “Et la lune” were atmospherically beguiling and had transparent sonorities. The chime effects were captivating, as were the dissonant seconds in “Et la lune.” The pianist’s control was sovereign in the concluding “Poissons d’or.” The tremolos, carefully graded arpeggios and a powerful coda floated and then burst over the Hall’s audience, small at 350 for such a virtuosic and widely-admired pianist.

Virtuoso was the word for the two Hamelin pieces that closed the first half, Pavane Variée and Variations on a Theme of Paganini. The latter was the best, a champagne orgy of sonority exploration, especially in the bass register. Commanding every part of the keyboard, Mr. Hamelin’s octave playing was superb, and along the way a sweet phrase was shattered by dissonant runs in each hand. No reference to composers other than Mr. Hamelin could be heard, and the famous theme appeared in every guise and finally brought down the house with huge volumes of sound.

The Pavane began with interesting chord progressions but quickly the chaste theme is lost in a tsunami of notes and mostly inconsequential effects. There are hints of Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Szymanowski in this music, but only hints. But again, what other pianist in the recent Green Music Center has played self-composed music? Mr. Hamelin’s pianism is never less than provocative.

Schubert’s seminal B Flat Sonata (D. 960), his last one from 1828, comprised the second half. It’s interesting to note how popular this work has become, juxtaposed with the lack of interest in Schubert by famed “Golden Age” piano virtuosi. The first recording of any Schubert Sonata was as late as 1928!

This evening Mr. Hamelin played the rapturous first-movement themes slowly and with palpable concentration. He was clearly inspired, breaking an occasional left-hand chord and inserting many tiny ritards. At all times he keeps his left foot on the shift pedal and gets the resulting color effects from the instrument that lesser artists miss. Just before the return of the exposition in piano he played the 8-bar dramatic fortissimo eruption that used to be omitted, but now is frequently played. There were extended pauses between some sections, as much as three to five seconds, that gave a sacred and focused character to the music. The chordal weighting was masterly and he used the damper pedal twice with the ending chords, avoiding a fermata.

The slow and stately Andante was underplayed, beautifully voiced with smooth transitions to new keys. The attacks were precise. Such playing was all the more impressive when contrasted with the following Scherzo, as the latter whizzed by with a slightly spunky dance in the middle and accented left-hand notes.

After so much meticulous attention to the composer’s majestic creation Mr. Hamelin produced a more vigorous (but never coarse) sound in the finale, using much damper pedal but again slowing for modulations and some lovely voice leading. It was a 46-minute performance, never sounding long, of spiritual beauty and exalted pianism. Though called back three times, Mr. Hamelin offered no encore. However, the anticipated fun of hearing several of his splashy post-program bagatelles was wholly offset by a Schubert Sonata performance to long cherish.

The marvelous Mr. Hamelin played the finest piano concert in Weill since the long ago Garrick Ohlsson recital.