SUPREME PIANO VIRTUOSI AS COMPOSERS
Marc-Andre Hamelin and Stephen Hough, piano, Chan Centre, Nov 4 and 25, 2012
When considering the greatest piano virtuosi of our time, it is natural to place Canadian Marc-Andre Hamelin and Englishman Stephen Hough right at the top of the list. Together they have recorded well over 100 CD’s in the last 20 years. We were indeed fortunate to see both these artists at the Chan Centre in the past weeks, but with a new wrinkle: both included compositions of their own in the programme. This does not happen very often these days. One is perhaps thrown back in history to the grand tradition of pianist/composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Or even earlier, when harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti or violinist Nicolo Paganini wrote compositions of such difficulty that only they could play them.
Certainly watching Marc Andre Hamelin play is like watching a cutting-edge surgeon at work. His ability to bring a precision, clarity and power to anything he plays, and at any speed, is simply remarkable. In this sense, he is one of the few pianists to play with a ‘warranty’; you are always guaranteed to get an exact rendering of all the notes. This was so evident in his wonderfully-crystalline treatments of short pieces by Faure and the Images of Debussy and his powerful, uncompromising treatment of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2. Listening to these sparkling performances conjured up an image that is similar to one we might have used when comparing digital CD’s to analogue vinyl recordings: the CD seemed to remove the ‘veil’ over the sound. Indeed, the feeling of freshly minted does stand out everywhere in Hamelin’s performances -- but they still might be too objective for some. Perhaps one actually wants a mist of languor and wonder to permeate Debussy, or an unmistakably Russian sentiment and passion to be just below the surface in Rachmaninoff. Hamelin’s almost scientific articulation does not really find these qualities. His style clearly suits more abstract, complex works, as we saw in his finely-crafted performance of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata that opened the concert.
This pianist has brought to life so many technically demanding but relatively obscure composers over his career (Alkan, Godowsky, Medtner), including the works of modern jazz/classical pianists (Gulda, Weissenberg), that it is not surprising he would eventually try composing for himself. His recording of his own Etudes (Hyperion CDA67789) has been much-acclaimed. The Paganini Variations (2011) heard here was quite an enterprising set of experiments on Paganini’s famous theme; playful, alert, yet featuring all sorts of pyrotechnical tricks too. The punctuations of chords from Beethoven’s 5th later in the work only added to the drama, and indeed the overall fun, of the piece. Not a profound work perhaps but a real showstopper.
Even if less technically accurate than Hamelin, Stephen Hough seemingly has more passion behind his notes. Capable of contrasting sharp, dramatic punctuations with the most serene and flowing playing, he gives the listener a strong appreciation of the emotional structure of the music. There is always a freshness and thoughtfulness to his playing, highlighted by his ability to spin out vast streams of notes so quietly, yet so communicatively. Chopin playing does not come much finer than what we heard in the two beautifully-controlled Nocturnes to begin: playing of much inward feeling, breadth, and nobility. The youthful impetuousness of Brahms Op. 5 Sonata was also perfectly caught from the outset, providing wonderful foil to the more quiet and magical inward musings that come later, especially in the slow movement. Hough’s ability to give this work an overall balance was clearly evident, as it was in Schumann’s Carnival too. Here there was strength, caprice and tenderness in abundance, with so many of the work’s diverse moods being pulled together by a combination of sharp punctuations followed by long paragraphs of soft and very fleet playing. While perhaps a little too quick at points, this was a revealing performance overall.
Stephen Hough allegedly started composing at the age of 6; a recent survey of his works can be found in his CD ‘Broken Branches’ (BIS1952). His complex and probing Sonata No. 2 (2011) is certainly more than a vehicle for the pianist’s virtuosity: here we heard a substantive modern composition. What makes this work fascinating is its chord structure. The chords at the beginning are in the spirit of the celebrated modern French composer, Olivier Messiaen, having a sense of primeval wonder and power. The right hand figurations indeed suggest Messiaen’s ‘bells’. After hinting at Ravel and Debussy, the work then moves to more Slavic chords, seemingly opening out with the full romantic spirit of Rachmaninoff. But only for a short time. In the composer’s own words: ‘When I move to the strong B-flat major chord, one thinks that the work will open out fully. But I quickly take it back to the more mystical earlier feelings, ending the work just as it began.’ I found this to be a very interesting musical journey.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012