Few in the business proffer the same fusion of near-unbelievable chops/technique with an acute musical sensitivity that encourages near-miracles.
By Susan Miron
Over my long life of concert-going — and seven years of concert reviewing — I have heard so many piano recitals that it takes a herculean effort for one to stand apart. And so it was with the unforgettable concert Marc-André Hamelin gave Friday night at Jordan Hall, his sixth performance in the city sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston. Hamelin has been dubbed a pianist’s pianist, a super-virtuoso, but this pianist-composer deserves more than mere clichés of praise. Pianists have long been aware of Hamelin by way of his more than fifty recordings on the Hyperion label of off-the-beaten path musical repertoire, explorations of pianists that are rarely played or acknowledged. They are also aware (no doubt enviously) that few in the business proffer the same fusion of near-unbelievable chops/technique with an acute musical sensitivity that encourages near-miracles. He has, throughout his career, made the most difficult nooks and crannies of the piano repertoire sound not just (relatively) easy to play, but beautiful as well.
In the past decade, Hamelin has recorded three luminous sets of CDs of the piano music of Franz Joseph Haydn (a perfect present for those who like classical music). Someone who knew Hamelin’s predilection for clever programming, his knack for mixing unknown music with, say, Haydn and Beethoven, would have recognized simply from looking at the program’s line-up who the performer was. Friday’s fascinating mix of music involved all sorts of provocative musical connections; the pieces seemed to speak to and shed light on each other.
A graceful, virtuosic performance of Haydn’s delightful Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48 opened the program. It was Hamelin’s Haydn CDs that aroused my very belated fascination (in my fifties) with Haydn’s piano music. After this came a clutch of two one-movement piano sonatas by the all-but-totally-unknown Samuil Feinberg (1890-1960), a Soviet Jew (and winner of the Stalin Prize) who made only two forays out of the USSR. Both sonatas (No. 2 in A minor and No. 1 in A Major) were begun in 1915, after the composer had contracted a serious illness during his brief military service on the Polish front in World War I. Feinberg was clearly influenced by Scriabin; he performed all of his older Russian colleague’s ten piano sonatas in recital. Interestingly, Feinberg was the first Russian to perform Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The first sonata’s lyricism reminded me, oddly, of Robert Schumann’s piano works.
There are several Beethoven piano sonatas I’ve heard too many times. The “Appassionata,” (Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Opus 57), written in 1804, is one of these, and I was not looking forward to another merely excellent performance of this work. I shouldn’t have worried about encountering the routine. Hamelin, who won raves last summer at Tanglewood when, on extremely short notice, he played a thrilling recital with the two Feinbergs and the “Appassionata.” His performance of the latter was absolutely thrilling, filled with breathtaking hairpin dynamics, explosive fortes, and continuously spellbinding music making.
After a boisterous standing ovation and a short intermission, Hamelin embarked on Alexander Scriabin’s (1871-1915) Sonata No. 7, Opus 64, written in 1911, which bears the title “White Mass.” Scriabin wrote ten virtuoso piano sonatas between 1892 and 1913; it was a nice touch to hear this piece after Feinberg’s early sonatas, which were written just four years later and are so clearly influenced by Scriabin. I’ve never had an easy time with the music of Scriabin, although I am intrigued by his synesthesia (a sensory link that caused musical sounds and colors to correspond in his brain). A curious factoid found in the program notes: “The expansive and virtuosic music reveals no hint that its composer was a small and slight man with hands that stretched barely more than an octave.”
The printed program next listed Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, but Hamelin thanked the Celebrity Series for “having great faith in me.” Instead, he played Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) rhapsodic “Fantasie,” Opus 17 (1836). Parts of this sprawling piece, a favorite among pianists, are reminiscent of both Beethoven (the dotted rhythms, the unbridled passion) and the architecture of Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor (which Hamelin plays better than anyone else I have heard).The piece has its origin in early 1836, when Schumann composed a piece entitled Ruines, which expressed his distress at being separated from his beloved Clara Wieck (who later to become his wife). Ruines became the first movement of the Fantasie. Later that year, he wrote two more movements to create a work that was to serve as part of an appeal for funds to erect a monument to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn.
Franz Liszt was one of the few pianists capable of meeting the then-unparalleled demands of the Fantasie, particularly the second movement coda’s rapid skips in opposite directions simultaneously. Liszt played the piece for Schumann privately and later he incorporated it into his teaching repertory. But he considered it unsuitable for public performance. However, Liszt returned the honour by dedicating his own Sonata in B minor to Schumann in 1853. Clara Schumann did not perform the Fantasie in her concerts until 1866, ten years after the composer died. To say that Hamelin’s performance was remarkable is a serious understatement. It was stupendous.
Two encores followed, but most of the bedazzled audience would have stayed all night to hear more. The first piece was the beautiful Schubert Impromptu in A Flat, which was exquisitely rendered. The audience had already given Hamelin two standing ovations and, of course, there were more huzzahs after he ended with the ferociously difficult (and rarely played) Waltz in E Major, Op. 53, #1 by Moritz Moszkovski. That, like every other piece on the program, was given a fabulous treatment. It was an awe-inspiring concert by an artist who can play just about everything better than just about anyone.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.