As pianist and composer, Hamelin delivers a distinctive program with panache

Sun May 29, 2016 at 11:07 am

By Tyler Krause

Marc-Andre Hamelin performed a wide-ranging recital last Sunday at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Fran Kaufman
Marc-Andre Hamelin performed a wide-ranging recital last Sunday at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Fran Kaufman

Marc-Andre Hamelin returned to Orchestra Hall last week to present a diverse program to a welcoming crowd. The Canadian pianist has a knack for finding pieces off the beaten path, such as Godowsky’s formidable Studies on Chopin Etudes, which has garnered him a following among pianophiles. In recent years, he has turned to programing works that fall within the standard piano repertory. Sunday’s recital performance was a testament to Hamelin’s skill as a performer as well as a composer.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576, opened the recital Sunday afternoon. The composer’s final work in the genre is among his most difficult, and Hamelin delivered a well-read interpretation. Though perhaps fitfully over-romanticized through use of pedal, the performance was technically polished and whipped off with ease. 

The three works comprising Claude Debussy’s second book of Images served as the centerpiece of a weighty first half. The second set of Images, composed in 1907, are essentially miniature tone poems.  The poignant “Cloches a travers les feuilles” (Bells sounding across the leaves) gleamed under the pianist’s hands and the subtle treatment of the melody over the shadowy pentatonic foundation met Debussy’s demand for arched phrasing.

Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (And the moon descends on the vanished temple) is a realization of gamelan bells augmented by the use of parallel harmonies. While holding together the broad structure, Hamelin’s tone crept through the foggy passagework, evocatively painting a lugubrious yet tranquil landscape.

Like many composers at the beginning of the 20th century, bringing water “to life” was a favored inspiration for Debussy. “Poissons d’or” (Goldfish) presents an animated sketch influenced by oriental embellishments. By employing the shimmering of blocked chords, rapid flourishes of arpeggios, and vivacious trills, Debussy evokes a playful atmosphere. Hamelin utilized all tools in his Impressionistic toolbox to depict the sparkling goldfish garcefully swimming through the water.    

Hamelin the composer was featured in the remainder of the first half. Both of his works pieces were in theme and variations form.

In Pavane variée, Hamelin chose the art song “Beautiful one who holds my life,” attributed to Thoinot Arbeau, as his theme. While the solemn, melodic theme seemed a promising choice, the subsequent variations provided little for the listener to hold onto and, perhaps, would have benefited from a more detailed introduction by the composer-pianist.

Hamelin’s Variations on a theme by Paganini, proved a better showcase for his compositional prowess. The theme, recognized by many as Paganini’s 24th Caprice, served as a stately introduction to the clever, whimsical music that followed in fourteen variations.

The 11th variation consisting of charming salsa and Charleston inserts between the theme’s melody lines elicited chuckles from the audience.  Some rearrangements acted as an homage to other composer’s attempts– Hamelin’s 13th variation sent Rachmaninoff’s famous 18th variation from his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini through various keys. Chopin’s Barcarolle and Liszt’s La Campanella were also referenced among Hamelin’s takes on the Caprice. The final variation ended with towering octaves in both hands moving independently, and provided an aptly exciting finale with ample bravura and pianistic acrobatics.   

Hamelin ended the concert with Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935. After having to excuse himself from the stage due to a coughing fit, he returned and executed the melodic D-flat major trio of the second Impromptu with melting finesse. The final, most arduous Imprompu was delivered with extraordinary panache, the coda rendered with elegant charm.

The long and enthusiastic ovations brought Hamelin back for two encores. The pianist executed Debussy’s Feux d’artice (Fireworks) effortlessly, with the rapid sixteenth notes painting the sizzling of a firecracker.

He closed the afternoon with a real rarity, Samuil Feinberg’ Piano Sonata No. 1. Feinberg’s petite sonata . The sonata’s style is characteristic of Nikolai Medtner and provided polished contrast to the proceeding works, with its intimate, storytelling introduction.

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