THE GREAT CANADIAN ARTISTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN
Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has emerged as one of the marvels of the twenty-first century. Few living pianists can match his transparency of articulation, rhythmic and tonal control and cunning virtuoso strength, and these characteristics are resoundingly illustrated in his recordings and concert performances of a vast range of 19th and 20th-century repertoire. His early – and indeed enduring – contribution lay in bringing technically-challenging works of lesser known and often forgotten composers to public attention, placing them on the world stage in the best light for others to absorb and study. In recent years, he has applied his interpretative and technical acumen to more mainstream literature with great success.
Hamelin was born in Montreal and studied at the École de Musique Vincent-d’Indy and Temple University. The first turning point in his career was winning the Carnegie Hall International Competition for American Music in 1985 at the age of 24. The second, in 1995, was the start of his association with Hyperion Records which has resulted in well over 50 recordings that have established him within the world’s élite pianists. Eleven of his recordings have been nominated for Grammy awards and, starting with his Godowsky Studies on Chopin’s Etudes, Hamelin has now received six Gramophone awards. He was inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame in 2016. His most recent releases include widely-praised discs of Medtner and Rachmaninoff concertos (with Vladimir Jurowski), the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (with Leif Ove Andsnes) and the Schubert B-flat major Sonata.
In 2003, Hamelin became an Officer of the Order of Canada and, in 2004, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec. This interview took place in conjunction with his November 2018 appearance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra where he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17.
1. MANY IDENTIFY YOUR CAREER WITH YOUR PIONEERING EFFORTS TO BRING CHALLENGING AND LESS FAMILIAR PIANO REPERTOIRE TO PUBLIC ATTENTION. I HAVE HEARD THAT THIS FOCUS DATES RIGHT BACK TO YOUR YOUTH.
My father was always playing the piano in the house from my earliest days: he was a very good amateur pianist and also played a lot of records at home. While I became familiar with a good part of the standard repertoire as a result, he was very curious about finding ‘important’ piano compositions that were less mainline and often forgotten. We essentially explored these together: he was often ordering new scores of unfamiliar composers and, even from a very young age, I would impatiently await their arrival too. I started playing the piano at age 5.
He was really fond of the Romantic literature – Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann – and it was outgrowths of this tradition that were of the greatest interest. He wasn’t inspired by the Classical repertoire and he was actually irritated by the huge Baroque revival at that time. It was Liszt that dominated his focus in his teenage years (in the early 1950s) and he bought all the Liszt recordings he could find, including the symphonic poems, Dante Symphony, Faust Symphony, and even some of the masses. Many of these were recorded on the Urania label that flourished at the beginning of the LP-era: I still have those LPs.
2. YOU HAVE LONG CHAMPIONED LEOPOLD GODOWSKY. DID YOU KNOW OF HIM WHEN YOU WERE VERY YOUNG?
Yes, my father had read about Godowsky in Harold Schoenberg’s The Great Pianists, and he eagerly wanted to get the scores of the Chopin-Godowsky Etudes. Unfortunately, they had been out of print for a long time, so he had to wait. Finally, around 1968, the pieces were reprinted, and he immediately ordered them. I still remember when the package arrived: we sat together and opened them with anticipation. I was only 7 or 8 at the time, and even though I couldn’t possibly play the original Chopin Etudes, I was still familiar with them by hearing and by score. I was amazed by what Godowsky had done with them: they looked like the Chopin absolutely exploding! My father actually tried to learn some of the more accessible ones; I didn’t come to them until many, many years later, of course, and it took me many years to learn the entire set. I would also find out about the piano works of Alkan, Sorabji and others – as further scores arrived.
3. DID YOU GO FURTHER ON YOUR OWN?
As soon as I was old enough to have a little pocket money, I wanted to explore further and I started buying bargain records, whatever I could find. At first, it was really avant-garde music, or at least what we considered avant-garde at the time: you know, Stockhausen, Boulez, and Cage. I was open to anything because it was all wonderful and strange to me. Later on, my mind turned a little more to the past, and for a long time - and still a bit today - I favoured the turn of the 20th century, where tonal harmony really started to break up. I thought that was possibly the most fascinating and radically innovative period in all of music history. Now I realize there have been groundbreaking innovations at many other times.
4. JUST OUT OF INTEREST, WHO MIGHT BE TODAY’S NEW GROUNDBREAKER FOR YOU?
Well, a composer who I never thought I would have any interest in at all, and most people would never believe – C.P.E. Bach. In Mozart, everything is beautifully proportioned, and while there are ‘surprises’, the forms are still predictable in the best sense of the word. Haydn has cunning angularity and many unique twists and turns – an absolutely powerhouse inspiration. Yet C.P.E Bach tried to break every single rule in the book, and sometimes I’m just in awe of his audacity. It’s simply amazing for the time he wrote.
5. YOU HAVE CLIMBED INTO THE WORLD’S PIANIST ÉLITE WITH YOUR EXTENSIVE PERFORMING AND VAST COMPENDIUM OF RECORDINGS FOR HYPERION SINCE THE MID-1990S. BUT YOU WERE NOT A YOUNG PIANIST WHEN YOU STARTED WITH THE LABEL. WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE THAT?
The initial turning point occurred when I won the Carnegie Hall International Music Competition in 1985 (at age 24). As part of the first prize, I was offered a debut recording with New World Records, but it had to be American music, preferably contemporary. A recording of the piano music of William Bolcom and Stefan Wolpe ultimately came forth. My second CD was an offer from CBC Records, but they stipulated that it had to be obscure repertoire. I suggested the Ives ‘Concord’ Sonata but they didn’t want to go with that, so I suggested Godowsky and they accepted. So that was my second one. For my 3rd CD, I was asked specifically by New World Records for the ‘Concord’ Sonata. So right then and there were my first 3 CDs and, even if I wanted to record Chopin or other mainline repertoire, I couldn’t have done it. There were two more on Altarus, including one of Sorabji, and one more each on CBC and Analekta. I also appeared twice on the Chandos label in the early 1990s: Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon with I Musici de Montreal, and the very incidental piano part in Rimsky’s Mozart And Salieri. But these were really minor: if you use a magnifying glass, you can find my name somewhere in the booklet, that kind of thing!
6. I CANNOT HELP BUT WONDER: HOW DID ANYBODY TEACH YOU HOW TO PLAY ALL THIS REPERTOIRE? YOUR EARLY PIANO TEACHERS WOULDN’T HAVE KNOWN THE WORKS.
They didn’t, and in many ways they tried to discourage me from going on this path. I got interested in the ‘Concord’ Sonata at 13, but I pretty well had to learn it myself, though I didn’t perform it till much later. There were eventually a few recordings by the 1970s: one by Gilbert Kalish, I recall. By the time I recorded the Chopin-Godowsky Etudes, there were also a couple of complete recordings. The first one was by a pianist who sounds like he sight-read through them. It created a huge disappointment among Godowsky enthusiasts around the world. And then came another recording which was at least very respectable. I didn’t listen to it too much: I preferred to go to the score. I always go to the score as the prime arbiter.
You must understand that when I embarked on many of these recording ventures, I was often given carte blanche, so I could do whatever I wanted. It’s a little bit like I was playing in the sandbox instead of doing my homework. Of course, I wanted to do standard repertoire too, and moved to this much later, but I always felt impelled to take on the opportunities to record exploratory repertoire when offered – especially with Hyperion, which is a niche label.
7. SO HOW DID THE HYPERION ASSOCIATION BEGIN?
Among my first concerts in the UK were a series of recitals with my Montreal contemporary, cellist Sophie Rolland. We gave a semi-private concert in London and it happened that Mike Spring, the sales manager for Hyperion, attended. He may have been their sales manager in title, but he was really their resident piano expert, an authentic pianophile of the best kind. He was curious about me, and had never heard me live. He apparently came because he was a big Godowsky fan and he had heard my first CBC record. So right then and there, he asked me if I would like to do a recording for Hyperion. So we started talking. As it turned out, this was to be a CD in their ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ series: in fact, a series so successful that many buyers got every single release, no matter what it was. What emerged was a debut concerto disc of Henselt and Alkan. I officially got an exclusive contract in 1996 and one of the first big things that they agreed to was for me to record all the Scriabin sonatas for them. That was an incredible vote of confidence as far as I was concerned.
8. DID YOU DO RECORDINGS ONE BY ONE – OR WAS THERE A MORE GENERAL PLAN?
No, it was totally random. There was no planning whatsoever. Mike Spring has an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature, and he definitely had a wishlist. But so did I. As their confidence in me became greater, I began to take more risks. Like the day I suggested recording the music of the Russian Nicolai Roslavets. That was really the first time any of it had been done – and it took an extraordinary amount of work.
9. WOULD YOU RANK THIS PROJECT AS ONE OF YOUR MOST FORBIDDING CHALLENGES EVER?
Absolutely. It was so much work, first off, because of Roslavets’ notation: he used his own synthetic harmonic system which was full of double flats and double sharps. Because I have perfect pitch, the way the music was printed really didn’t correspond to what I was hearing and trying to read. Especially for the three etudes, I had to re-notate the entire thing. Part of the first sonata was also written with so much obfuscation that I couldn’t learn the music, so I re-copied everything, simplifying accidentals (but not changing notes, of course). I also had to reduce the number of staves because sometimes as many as 4 were involved. I would say this CD gave me the most work ever. There were things in my 2007 CD ‘In a State of Jazz’ that were pretty forbidding too: Alexis Weisenberg’s Sonata must rank as perhaps the most complex thing I’ve ever had to learn. But it was so fascinating: I wanted to hear it, so I learned it!
10. WHAT ABOUT YOUR OWN ETUDES, RELEASED ON CD IN 2010?
The Etudes also weren’t an easy task because I composed the pieces away from the piano. And, truthfully, I didn’t always realize the extent of the difficulties that I was creating for the pianist, especially in the earliest pieces. But, you know, I went through it. I haven’t played them recently so I don’t know how they would feel now.
11. SO, IS YOUR COMPOSING CONTINUING?
Actually I’m in the process of fulfilling 3 different commissions over the course of the next year. One of them is for piano solo, another is for piano duet (4 hands at one piano), and the final one is for piano and two violins. That’s all I can say right now. The one for piano solo will take the form of a Baroque suite in 6 movements, but it will be Baroque in inspiration, not in actual sound. The only thing I really retain is the dance and some of the aura. The first movement starts sort of like Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy for example..
12. ONE THING THAT I HAVE CONSISTENTLY NOTED IS HOW FINELY HONED AND BEAUTIFUL SOUNDING YOUR HYPERION CDS ARE. DO YOU EDIT A LOT?
I think probably, yes, but I don’t have any part in picking takes, other than the suggestions I may make at the moment of recording and after listening to playbacks. That’s it. I try to run out rough edges as much as I can before recording. Andrew Keener has been the producer for all my Hyperion CDs, with the exception of two. I’ve trusted him for many years: once you have Andrew, you don’t go back! I’m not the only one who says that: Stephen Hough would say exactly the same thing.
13. MANY ARTISTS NOTE A VAST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RECORDING AND CONCERT PERFORMANCES. WHAT’S YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
I don’t really perceive it myself, I have to say. The level of commitment is exactly the same, but there’s naturally a subconscious difference when there is audience present because I’m definitely playing for someone. In the studio, that someone has to be imaginary. Nonetheless, I can keep in my own world pretty well in either case. When you perform for the music and not for yourself, it’s easier to keep the same degree of commitment. In either case, I see my fundamental task as convincing the listener of the worth and inspiration of the music I’m presenting.
14. YOU MUST HAVE SOME FEELINGS ON HOW YOUNG ARTISTS PURSUE THEIR CAREER AND USE THE STAGE THESE DAYS.
I know that people are attracted to spectacle these days, and I can’t change that. Frankly, I wish the word showpiece would be stricken out of the vocabulary because that’s one of the words that I dislike most. Ideally, when people come to see me – I know it’s unrealistic – I wish they would just concentrate on the music itself and my efforts to bring it to life. Maybe some people are too influenced by the way I look on stage, which is probably boring by today’s standards.
15. BUT YOUR CAREER PATH HAS BEEN TOTALLY DIFFERENT THAN TODAY’S YOUNG, WITH A MUCH GREATER FREEDOM TO EXPLORE DIVERSE REPERTOIRE. I DOUBT THAT ANY OF THESE CURRENT RISING STARS WOULD EVER TURN TO ROSLAVETS AS THEY MATURE.
That’s true. Major record labels will say to a young pianist, ‘Okay, you’re going to do Tchaikovsky 1, and then you’re doing Rach 2 – because we want you to, and that’s what the label needs and that’s what can further your career.’ Never mind about what the pianist actually wants to do. You’re pushed glamourously into the spotlight (sometimes before your even 20) without the resources to explore repertoire and the ‘culture’ you need to understand it fully.
16. I RECALL AN INTERVIEW WITH BARRY DOUGLAS WHERE HE CITED VAN CLIBURN’S ADVICE AFTER WINNING THE 1985 TCHAIKOVSKY COMPETITION: ‘DON’T BE SWAYED WITH WHAT PEOPLE WANT YOU TO DO; JUST GO ON AND DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO.’ AND THEN ONE HEARS COMMENTATORS ON CURRENT COMPETITIONS SUGGESTING THAT MANY CONTESTANTS ARE DOING LITTLE MORE THAN MIMICKING INTERPRETATIONS ON YOUTUBE.
Which I think is the completely wrong thing to do because it negates the toil and trouble the composer went through to notate their intentions as well as possible for everyone to understand. I had a great illustration of this problem when I served on the jury of the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition. I was commissioned to write a new piece called Toccata on’L’homme armé’, that all contestants were required to perform. I heard it played 30 times total and what a learning experience that was for me! I fully understand why competitions need to do this: it forces the contestants to rely on their own intelligence and score-reading abilities, without recordings or any previous reference to rely on.
17. WOULD YOU EVER ADVOCATE THAT YOUNG PIANISTS START THEIR CAREER LIKE YOU DID?
Truthfully, I wouldn’t recommend my career path on anybody. A pianist starting out should not do what I did with the obscure works. Because it was really very tough for me. I consider myself a late starter as a consequence. My first manager in New York, although I doubt he was really working very hard, wasn’t able to do much at all for me. But the fact that the buildup of my career has been gradual has in a way been a good thing; my present managers have told me ‘the good thing about you is that your career has legs.’
18. LET’S MOVE TO YOUR TECHNIQUE. FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO GET A HANDLE ON EXACTLY HOW YOU USE THE PIANO. I GOT BOLD ENOUGH IN MY REVIEW OF YOUR CONCERT LAST MAY TO REMARK THAT ‘BOTH [HAMELIN’S] HANDS ARE SO BALANCED AND UNIFORM IN ADDRESS AND WEIGHT THAT IT IS ALMOST AS IF ANY GIVEN NOTE WOULD REGISTER IDENTICALLY NO MATTER WHICH HAND WAS PLAYING IT.’ IS THAT TRUE?
That’s what I definitely aspire to. I do fingerings for the Henle Verlag publishing house, and there I have to adhere to a certain set of standards. If I put in the fingerings that I actually use, it would be very complicated to notate, since I help myself with the other hand all the time. As I’ve cultivated independence of the fingers, I can sometimes come up with some very creative solutions, many of which would be impossible to write down.
19. YOU ARE VERY TRANSPARENT, WITH DYNAMICS SCALED NOTE BY NOTE. IS THERE A SPECIFIC PEDALLING TECHNIQUE YOU USE AS WELL?
That I’m not conscious of at all. My subconscious musicality and ear dictate it. You can’t ask me how I pedal, because in order to tell you, I’d have to play a piece over and over and just observe what I’m doing. It happens despite myself.
20. EVERYONE REGARDS YOU AS A COMMANDING VIRTUOSO BUT, ULTIMATELY, HOW MUCH OF A VIRTUOSO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
My clarity, precision and tonal control are critical to virtuoso performance, but I doubt that my technique is as quite as special as the Trifonovs or Yuja Wangs of today.
21. THE LAST DECADE HAS GIVEN YOU THE CHANCE TO PUT YOUR STAMP ON THE MAJOR REPERTOIRE, AND ALTER YOUR EARLIER IMAGE TO A DEGREE. YOU HAVE NOW DONE VERY SUCCESSFUL HAYDN AND SCHUMANN, MANY OF THE MOZART SONATAS, AND SO ON.
My concert programmes and especially my recording interests are definitely more conventional now and have been for quite a while. Yet there are still some obscure composers that I’m interested in bringing to the forefront – most recently, the Russian Samuil Feinberg. I have performed his first six sonatas extensively within the last three or four years, and I will be recording them in mid-December.
22. AND YOU HAVE RECENTLY DONE A DISC OF THE SCHUBERT B-FLAT SONATA? I ACTUALLY SAW YOU PLAY IT IN TORONTO IN THE LATE 1990S.
That was a very long time ago and one of my first attempts: I started playing the sonata in ’97. You probably found the third and fourth movements much too fast! I am so fascinated with Schubert now: he’s able to do so much with so little, he can do something with just one note and you wonder how. I’ll continue to do more.
23. SOME OF YOUR SLOWER TEMPOS TANGENTIALLY INVITE COMPARISON WITH SVIATOSLAV RICHTER. WHAT’S YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON HIS SCHUBERT?
I don’t really like it: it is too extreme. Somehow I feel he should be expressing ideas, sentences, punctuation, paragraphs – and not every single letter instead. He stretches the first movement of the G major Sonata to 27 minutes and you don’t feel the four pulse anymore.
24. AND BRAHMS AND BEETHOVEN?
I’ve done Brahms Op. 117 and 119 already, and I will certainly progress through more than the Second Piano Concerto. Hyperion’s Stephen Hough is about to do (or has just completed) all the late piano pieces but, fortunately, Simon Perry has said that he doesn't mind repeating repertoire anymore. I wouldn’t do all the Beethoven sonatas for the simple reason that I don’t like them all equally well. The only time which I’ve made complete recordings is when I was convinced of every single part of every single work. I would also like to do both Ravel concertos.
25. ONE NEW ADVENTURE OVER THE PAST DECADE IS YOUR RECORDING COLLABORATIONS WITH THE ESTIMABLE TAKÁCS QUARTET – THE SCHUMANN, SHOSTAKOVICH AND FRANCK PIANO QUINTETS SO FAR. YOU MUST HAVE ENJOYED THESE?
Oh, yes, we have a great time together. It’s funny, there’s never a lot of rehearsals, but we just understand each other so well when we play. We did a recording in August 2018 of both of Dohnányi’s Piano Quintets after playing them at the Edinburgh Festival. That's going to be out sometime in 2019.
26. AND, FINALLY, THERE WAS LAST YEAR’S TOUR AND RECORDING WITH WONDERFUL PIANIST LEIF OVE ANDSNES PLAYING THE TWO-PIANO VERSION OF STRAVINSKY’S LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS. THAT MUST HAVE BEEN AN EXPERIENCE.
We had a blast. We toured extensively with the repertoire that’s on the disc before recording it – as a matter of fact, our first performances of the Sacre date all the way back to 2008! Leif Ove is an inestimable partner, an extremely kind and noble soul, and needless to say a fantastic musician.
27. IT SEEMS TO ME THAT YOU HAVE ACHIEVED MUCH MORE THAN ANY PIANIST COULD REASONABLY EXPECT BY THEIR MID-50S – A MASSIVE CONTRIBUTION TO REVITALIZING ‘IMPORTANT’ LESSER KNOWN COMPOSERS AND PIECES, PLUS THE OPPORTUNITY TO PERFORM AND RECORD ALL THE VERY GREATEST WORKS IN THE PRIME OF YOUR MATURITY.
It’s a strange route perhaps, but I suppose that the thirst for discovery, and the desire to share music, any music, in a way that convinces, has always been what drives me.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019
I thank Kelly Bao for transcription assistance.
Photo Credits: Sim Cannety-Clarke, Jodi Foster, Matthew Baird