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The Exeriments of a Supervirtuoso

Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano  and Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Works by Mozart and Schubert, Chan Centre, October 15, 2010

     Montreal-born Marc-Andre Hamelin has slowly but surely become one of the world’s greatest piano virtuosos.  Starting from the more obvious compositions of extreme technical difficulty (Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin), he has continuously given new life to less well-known or forgotten composers (Godowsky, Alkan, Medtner, Busoni, Reger), as well as taking on the most demanding works  in the 20th C. literature (Ives, Barber, Villa-Lobos).  He also composes himself and records the works of other pioneering ‘experimental’ pianists (Fredrich Gulda, Alexis Weissenberg).  Still only in his late forties, Marc-Andre Hamelin has now recorded almost 80 CD’s (the majority on the distinguished Hyperion label) and won eight Grammy awards.  He received the Order of Canada in 2003.

Marc-Andre Hamelin (Photo: Fran Kaufman)

Marc-Andre Hamelin (Photo: Fran Kaufman)

     Anyone who watches the poised, chiseled perfection of his many YouTube extracts (try Alkan if you want a thrill) and observes how he knifes through even the most impossibly-difficult works with the ease of a cutting-edge surgeon, will say that his playing is amazing, almost inhuman. This is a telling observation.  In recent years, Mr. Hamelin has been moving backwards to more classical composers: to Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schumann, all of which are loved for their ‘humanity’. I saw his Beethoven Emperor Concerto with the VSO two years ago in which the runs and phrases were dispatched with such glimmering perfection and ease that I almost forgot Beethoven’s emotional struggle.  So there is a potential ‘matching’ problem here.  A further concern is that Vancouver audiences rarely have seen this pianist in a concert featuring the modern composers he plays so well.  Wouldn’t Scriabin’s Piano Concerto be an ideal programming choice?  Instead, we have Mozart’s 24th for this concert.

     But this is a Mozart 24th with a difference!  Mozart did not leave any original cadenzas for this concerto, so a pianist is on his own here.  How much on his own?  Well, in Mr. Hamelin’s cadenzas (presumably written by himself), we were transported quickly from Mozart to the neo-modern world of Scriabin, Busoni, and even possibly Schnittke.  And for quite a long time too!  This happened in both the first and third movements.  A purist would object on stylistic grounds, but I secretly enjoyed this ‘fusion’ Mozart.  I finally got to hear Hamelin play in ‘his’ area.

     What about the rest of the concerto?  Certainly, most tasteful pianism, but again the phrasing was so clean and ‘even’ in articulation that emotional changes did not register strongly.  There was also not much interaction between piano and orchestra.  The beautiful Larghetto simply calls out for a continuous interplay between piano and expressive winds, but this was not really there.  Part of the difficulty is that Bramwell Tovey has a big, robust Mozart style (evidenced also in his Symphony 39 later in the concert), so that some of the crystalline and softly interactive parts of the score did not register.  A scaled-down orchestra would likely work better for the pianist.

     All told, this was a strangely fascinating concert.  I am still not convinced that Marc-Andre Hamelin offers full illumination in standard classics.  But I am convinced that this is a pianist that everyone must get to know, and know well.  He has made a tremendous contribution to music in general and his recordings are both pioneering and standard-setting.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010