Marc-André Hamelin traverses neglected Alkan work with flair

Tue Nov 09, 2010 at 8:29 am

By Dennis Polkow

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo: Frank Kaufman

With the originally announced Murray Perahia sidelined with a hand injury, leave it to French-Canadian pianist-composer Marc-André Hamelin to come to the rescue and offer a diverse assortment of 18th and 19th century piano music Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Of particular interest was the inclusion of the mammoth four-movement Symphony for Solo Piano by French Romantic Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888).

Well-known in the Romantic era but little more than a curiosity and footnote today, Alkan was once dismissed by Robert Schumann as epitomizing vulgarity without imagination.  Liszt was a friend and is said to have been an Alkan admirer, and some even cite Alkan as a missing link between late Romanticism and early 20th century piano music.

Alkan’s ability to take naïve ideas and motifs and arrange these in a wildly pianistic manner was apparent in Sunday’s performance. Yet the phrases are short and jagged, often with sudden starts and stops, and are rarely allowed to develop in an organic manner.  Alkan’s rhythmic sensibility is a strength, but melody eludes him: what little there is gets broken up into endlessly repetitious sequences.

Basking in the vacuous, effects-laden virtuosity, it became easy to imagine listeners of Alkan’s time being as confused and confounded by Alkan’s music as they would have been by composers that are now household names.

In that sense, Hamelin is doing listeners a service by allowing such neglected works to be unearthed and meticulously prepared and performed to help fill in, as Pierre Boulez would call it, a Swiss cheese view of culture—in this case, a view of 19th-century Romanticism that is full of holes.  By having a complete musical picture of the era, warts and all, rather than only being exposed to the cream of the musical crop, we come to understand and appreciate all the more the qualities that separated Romantic masters from Romantic also-rans.

Preceding the Alkan was the Fauré Nocturne No. 6, in D-flat minor, Op. 63, as much a model of economic musical expression as the Alkan was a study in elephantine excess, given a performance that brought out its rhythmic rather than its ethereal qualities, perhaps in an attempt to connect a line from Alkan to Fauré.

Ordinarily, a performance of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli would likely be the most grandiose work on a piano program, but by preceding the decadently flamboyant Alkan, Liszt by contrast, actually sounded subtle.

Opening the program were traversals of two Classical masterworks that Hamelin clearly views as almost programmatic precursors to the Romantic era: Haydn’s Andante with Variations in F minor, H. XVII:6 and the Mozart Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310.

Hamelin’s slow, heavily pedaled but delicately nuanced Haydn served to underline its forward-looking connection to the next century while the Mozart was played in a more Classical style, albeit one in which symmetrical musical architecture is beginning its tilt towards greater expression.

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One Response to “Marc-André Hamelin traverses neglected Alkan work with flair”

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2010 at 3:12 pm by Phil Setchfield

    Mr Polkow’s review of Alkan’s music completely misses the mark.

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