Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Marc-André Hamelin in recital

On Sunday afternoon at the Newmark Theatre, acclaimed pianist Marc-André Hamelin gave a recital that displayed his impeccable command of a wide range of music. The concert, sponsored by Portland Piano International, featured two Haydn sonatas, a jazz-inflected sonata by Weissenberg, a ballade and a barcarolle by Chopin, a Johann Strauss-inspired number by Godowsky, and a couple of new evocative pieces by Hamelin himself. It was a delightful hodgepodge that struck me as more cerebral than emotional. Maybe that was due to the fact that Hamelin didn’t throw his head back or make any grand gestures with his hands and arms after he finished an ardent phrase. This virtuoso pianist didn’t go over the top on the emotional side, instead he delivered clean and clear interpretations

I have heard a lot about Hamelin from a friend of mine who plays blues guitar but has a keen interest in the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose works Hamelin has performed and recorded to great acclaim. Hamelin has received the the Preis der Deutsche Schallplattenkritik (Prize of the German Recoding-critics) and the 2000 Gramophone Instrumental Award and has been nominated twice for the Grammy Awards.

The concert opened with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in F major (Hob. Xv1:23) and Sonata in B-flat major (Hob. XV1:41). Hamelin began the first sonata with a very light, almost crystalline touch. He gave the second movement (Adagio) a dreamy, lyrical quality, and it contained some brief, yet dramatic pauses as well. The third movement (Presto), Hamelin emphasized Haydn’s humor in an understated way that included some very rapid flourishes.

Hamelin’s interpretation of the second sonata was slightly weightier, beginning with a first movement that skillfully alternated between noble sentiments and lighter passages that seemed to trip along like a kid skipping down a sidewalk. Hamelin impressed me with his quick articulation of tricky phrases. He played both Haydn numbers very quickly.

The first half of the program concluded with Alexis Weissenberg’s "Sonate en état de jazz" (Sonata in a State of Jazz). The first part of this piece (evoking a tango) contained a lot of crunchy chords and a complicated mix of notes that drew the audience deeper and deeper into the music. At one point, the music spills into a tango, but then another set of odd, crunchy chords take over again before the music ends with question. The second part (Charleston) revealed a virtuosic combination of notes and rhythm and no discernable melody. The third part of the piece (Blues) kept us in a melancholy reverie until it faded away with a musical question mark at the end. The fourth part (Samba) had an intriguing set of sophisticated rhythms that would sound like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo in lesser hands.

After intermission Hamelin returned to play Frédéric Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp major (Op 60) and the Ballade No 3. in A-flat major (Opus 47). Hamelin performed the Barcarolle in an understated manner, but he did seem to open up a bit of emotion for the Ballade – especially when he delivered an exquisitely tender transition from the first theme to the second.

Next Hamelin played two of his own works: the Etude No. 8 "Erlkönig" (after Goethe’s poem) and the Etude No. 7 (after Tchaikovsky). The Etude No. 8 was Hamelin’s re-imaging of the Goethe’s famous poem about a father carrying his young son on horseback through a wild forest and the son hearing the call of the elf king (Erlkönig) who lures the child away from the father. I thought that the treble notes in Hamelin’s piece represented the voice of the child, and I could easily hear the father on horseback riding faster and faster. It seemed like a work that deserves another hearing, and Hamelin told the audience (before playing the work) that he would perform it again this summer in a festival in Norway where he would accompany the great German baritone, Thomas Quasthoff in Schubert’s famous "Erlkönig."

Hamelin played his Etude No. 7 with his left hand only. This was a hauntingly beautiful number that gave me the picture of someone losing his/her way in the woods on a wintry evening. If you shut your eyes, you could’ve sworn that Hamelin was using both hands. He demonstrated an innate sense of how to use the pedal and a very, light and even touch on the keyboard. The result was magical.

The concert concluded with Leopold Godowsky’s “Symphonic Metamorphoses on Johan Strauss’s ‘Wine, Woman, and Song.’” Hamelin made this complicated piece look a lot easier than it is, rounding out the concert with a glorious and joyous sound.

After a hearty round of applause, Hamelin gave us an encore, an arrangement by Weissenberg of "April in Paris "(Charles Trenet). This piece was lush and elegant and left us at the salon and wanting more.

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