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Fantasie in C, op.17
Sonata no.2 in g, op.22
Etudes symphoniques, op.13
Marc-André Hamelin (pianoforte)
Hyperion CDA67166 [75' 43"]
Crotchet    Amazon UK    Amazon US

The Fantasie, in particular, has the reputation of containing some of the most hair-raising pages in the piano repertoire. Marc-André Hamelin, however, has made a speciality of works that remain outside the repertoire because practically nobody can play them. I don't want to suggest that this Schumann is all kiddies' stuff for him but there are hints here and there that it may be a "day off" from the more serious stuff, the equivalent, for us lesser mortals, of a Saturday afternoon with Grieg's Lyric Pieces.

Tempi in the Sonata are very similar to those of the legendary Richter version, recorded during an Italian tour in 1962 (I don't know about the availability of this at the moment, it first came out on a World Record Club LP). These tempi left critics flabbergasted at the time (they are in fact pretty close to Schumann's metronome marks, but conventional wisdom had it that they could not be done). Yet if you set them alongside each other, while Richter takes your breath away by the sheer sweep of his opening paragraph, Hamelin sectionalises it by little nudgings and peckings. And, when he comes to the second subject, how heavy-handedly he makes his points compared with Richter's simple poetry, and how he kick-starts the return to tempo!

In the slow movement his quaver accompaniment at the outset trudges where Richter's gentle pulsation recedes into the background beside his vocally singing line. Indeed, though Hamelin's tone is attractive and never hard (except in a few of the Symphonic Studies where it becomes clangy) it never quite sings gloriously either. So as this slow movement expands, we find that melody, semiquaver figuration and counter-melodies coagulate, with a touch of heavy-handed rubato when some particular inner part is to be emphasised, while with Richter each line has its special colour and weight and is in continual dialogue with the others.

In general it the Fantasie which comes off best here, with many finely surging moments and a fail-safe delivery of the second movement's notorious coda. Yet compare the opening with Rubinstein and, while the latter's slow tempi, his passion recollected in tranquillity, are controversial, a different order of pianism is evident. The semiquaver figuration speaks here truly of the "sounds of the many-coloured earth-dream" which Schumann quotes from Schlegel at the head of the piece, and seems quite independent of the melody above it. While Hamelin's semiquavers buzz angrily and distract attention from the melodic line. And, slow though Rubinstein is, he is able to make the music flow effortlessly to its first resting place while Hamelin again chops it up into sections. It may seem refreshing at first to hear the Im Legendenton section begin less lugubriously than it often does, but Hamelin is soon tearing away quite skittishly. In the final movement, on the other hand, he is sticky, unwilling to let the music generate its own tensions, and light years from the generous humility with which Rubinstein carries the listener ever onward towards Schumann's great climax. If you feel that Rubinstein misses some of Schumann's impetuousness and ardour, then Martha Argerich essays all this with far greater poetry and timbric fascination than Hamelin.

At the risk of sounding pompous, piano technique doesn't, or shouldn't, just mean doing very difficult things very fast, but has to do with weighting and colouring of lines, independence of counter-melodies and variety of touch. On this level Hamelin doesn't appear to be particularly distinguished. And even if you do take the view that the Symphonic Studies are basically a set of technical exercises (perish the thought!), to plough through the elf-like no.9 and the irascible no.10 with the same touch and at a steady forte is to miss the point of the exercise.

If you forget about comparisons and just sit back and listen, there is pleasure and some excitement to be had here. But the great thing about having a century of recorded legacy is that you can make comparisons, and the central Schumann works have an extraordinarily rich discography.

Christopher Howell.

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