Hamelin’s traversal of four centuries of music more eclectic than effective

Fri Jul 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

By Dennis Polkow

Marc-André Hamelin performed a recital Thursday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.

Eclecticism has always been the hallmark of French-Canadian pianist-composer Marc-André Hamelin, who may well have the broadest repertoire of any major pianist performing today, reaching as it does across four centuries.  Yet despite the immense breadth of Hamelin’s repertoire, his performance choices come and go according to his moods, interests and recording projects, so rarely do the full facets of his music-making capabilities reveal themselves within a single program.

On paper at least, Hamelin’s recital Thursday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre  looked to be an illuminating opportunity to experience the development of piano music from the 18th through the 21st centuries. Unfortunately, in actual performance, much of the music ended up representing meandering and marginal detours. 

No one could fault Hamelin for programming Haydn and Chopin, two stalwarts of the repertoire that served as bookends to an evening used primarily to showcase the pianist’s own compositions and transcriptions. 

In fact, Hamelin was so excited about performing his transcriptions of pianist Alexis Weissenberg’s improvisations on songs of French singer-songwriter Charles Trenet that his anticipation got ahead of the program. The pianist asked the audience if it had program notes; when given a resounding “yes,” he said, “Well, I want to talk a bit about these pieces anyway.”  Suddenly it dawned on him that he had another piece to play first—Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Ravel meets Respighi programmatic portrayal of cypress trees in Tuscany.   

In his eventual, convoluted, introduction, Hamelin explained that three years ago, he came across some 45’s of Weissenberg improvising on six Trenet songs. The spontaneous recordings, made during Liszt recording sessions in the 1950s, were actually released by Weissenberg under the pseudonym of “Mr. Nobody.”  “There was something very special about them,” assessed Hamelin, “and I set out to transcribe them by ear from the records, which was no easy task, but was extremely interesting.” 

Would that the end result of such a labor-intensive endeavor was nearly so interesting.  Sadly, these arrangements sound hopelessly dated and naïve, coming across like Liberace schmaltz, a classically trained pianist’s cliché-ridden attempt to be jazzy via the use of constant arpeggios and rolling octaves.  These pieces have as much to do with jazz as Aretha Franklin singing Nessun dorma has to do with opera. This is mediocre and overblown piano-bar music in the concert hall, minus the watered-down drinks.   

Hamelin’s own compositions were represented by two etudes in minor keys that are part of a projected set of a dozen etudes in minor keys, although “some have been withdrawn.”  Erlkönig is a setting of the same Goethe text that is the basis of the famous Schubert song.  “My version has nothing to do with the Schubert,” explained Hamelin, “but it matches the text perfectly.  Don’t worry, I won’t sing.”  If there was a song amid the Bartókian upper seconds and sevenths, its transformation into an etude concealed more than it revealed. 

More satisfying was Hamlin’s etude For the Left Hand Alone (after Tchaikovsky) that took a lullaby and cast it in the piano’s lower range with constant flourishing accompaniment that spanned three-quarters of the keyboard without ever involving the right hand.  The art here is to have everything sound like two-handed legato as if you were crossing the right hand over the left, a feat which Hamelin tossed off like child’s play. 

Crossing hands and arpeggios were also a feature of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor, given a reading as unpredictable as the program itself. Hamelin’s performance sometimes revealed poetry — especially in the Largo and the more tranquil moments of the finale — but all too often spilled over into excess. 

Hamelin clearly views the Haydn Sonata No. 59 in E-flat Major (Hob. XVI:49) as a precursor to Beethoven—especially the Fifth Symphony’s famous motif, which he would pound out whenever it appeared, as if he were playing its transformations in Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata (which he often has). The performance was marred by a chaotic sense of rubato that often sacrificed the fluidity and structure of Haydn’s own intentions.

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