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Bach/Busoni, Schumann, Hamelin, Alkan: Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday, April 11th, 2002 (CC).

S & H Recital Review

Recovering, we were told, from an illness, Marc-André Hamelin decided on a last-minute change of programme. Instead of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, we heard the Fantaisie on C, Op. 17, a work I would have thought several degrees more challenging. Perhaps it was just familiar to the pianist (there is a recent recording on Hyperion CDA67166).

The fact is that the first part of the recital was superb. The monumental quality of the Busoni ‘transcription’ of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita suited his mentality perfectly. The first thing to strike the listener is Hamelin’s piano sound, which can only be described as colossal. This, coupled with an almost tangible aura of stately inevitability resulted in an awe-inspiring interpretation. It was the best possible way to begin the recital.

It is interesting to watch Hamelin play; even in such a mobile piece as the Schumann Fantasie, physical movement was kept to a minimum. All the effort was channelled into the music itself. After the Romantic outpouring of the opening left-hand semiquavers, Hamelin demonstrated exemplary phrasal timing over this bed of sound. As the performance went on, however, it became evident that the same sense of architecture he had shown in the Chaconne was present here, too, and it will be that element which lingers in this listener’s memory, despite much to admire along the way, particularly as regards voice-leading. Only the March, curiously, became laboured.

It would be difficult to follow such a first half. As it turned out, the decision to include one of his own pieces, a set of seven pieces collectively called Con intissimo Sentimento, was a flawed one. Pianist-composers, once order of the day, are now a rarity, and Hamelin’s attempt to style himself in this fashion was an uncomfortable one. He himself writes that he does not think it a good idea to perform the set in its entirety, and yet that is exactly what he did. The bittersweet harmonies of the first Ländler soon paled into a non-descript harmonic language which itself sometimes further degenerated into ‘easy listening’. Certainly latter this term seems apt as these pieces demand precious little effort from the audience. Perhaps the greatest surprise is that the pieces were so unshowily subdued, coming from the pen of someone who devours demisemiquavers for breakfast.

Thankfully Alkan brought a return to Hamelin-like ‘normality’ (unattainable for the vast majority of mere mortals) in the shape of the Symphony for Solo Piano (Nos. 4-7 of the 12 Etudes dans les tons mineurs, Op. 39). This was simply breathtaking. Hamelin’s advocacy of Alkan is clearly one hundred percent (he has recorded this piece on CDA67218: check out his other Alkan recordings for Hyperion, also). It was not only the sovereign technique or the way the music unfolded naturally: all aspects of the piece were beautifully presented. The chording in the funeral march was luminous, and beautiful is the only word to describe the Trio of the Menuet.

There were inevitable encores (Brahms and Albéniz), but it was the two extremities of the recital, the Bach/Busoni and the Alkan, which made the evening special.


Colin Clarke

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