Canadian pianist (and sometime composer) Marc-André Hamelin can play anything. Or so it would appear from his recital at Wigmore Hall last night, his first concert in London following his dazzling all-Liszt Prom last Summer. He wowed the audience with an adventurous programme spanning almost two centuries of radical creative impulses, from Haydn to Stockhausen, and featuring large-scale works by Liszt and Villa-Lobos along the way.
Hamelin has been much lauded for his exceptional technique, a word which is often mistaken for “piano mechanics”. It is not the ability to perfectly execute thousands of scales and other ‘technical exercises’ with amazing dexterity, but rather an aggregate of many skills which enable the pianist to play a million different passages, and to adjust finger and arm weight and touch accordingly to achieve particular effects and sounds, as well as learning to ‘speak’ the language of music through one’s playing. Another crucial aspect of technique is control – something Hamelin has in spades.
Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, HXVI:34, was elegantly turned, and the most undemanding piece of the evening for the audience. Witty and fleeting (the last movement ends impassively, like an after-thought), full of surprises and convention-defying harmonic shifts, Hamelin brought to it his characteristically pristine articulation as well as some wonderful episodes of chiaroscuro, and carefully nuanced shadings and phrasing.
Pan forward nearly two hundred years to Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, a piece which is built on two strongly contrasting ideas: an incessantly repeated four-note chord in periodic rhythms, and a slowly rising chromatic scale with each note a different duration. The rhythmic proportions of this work are based on the Fibonacci Sequence, but you don’t need to know that to appreciate both the composer’s radical intent and Hamelin’s masterly control, of both touch and sound. The opening chords (there are 142 and 87 in the first two bars respectively) twang, rumble, growl and throb, and the piano is transformed into some other instrument, perhaps a hybrid of guitar and organ. Elsewhere in the piece there are scurryings and flutterings high in the treble, kaleidoscopic tonal shifts, insistent trills and rhythmic clusters, shards of sound tossed about, and at times the music seems entirely improvisatory (an intentional device on the part of the composer: the score dictates that the performer plays whichever fragments catch his eye first). My concert companion (who also happens to be one of my piano students) commented on the amazing acoustic effects Hamelin created by keeping the dampers lifted away from the strings: a cloud of sound which floated out of the Steinway and over the audience. This was a truly remarkable performance, and the long pause before the applause was a mark of our appreciation of it.
The extended Rudepoema, by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, was written for his great friend, the pianist Artur Rubinstein. It was intended as a “musical portrait” to capture Rubinstein’s personality “with an intimate camera” (according to Hamelin), yet it is a piece of almost unremitting naked savagery and brutality, a sonic voyage into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is also unashamedly virtuosic and flamboyant, this exuberant, rude and strenuous 20-minute hunk of uneasy listening.
Hamelin rose to the challenge with bravura (the work’s technical challenges are comparable to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit), and in his hands – which zoomed about the keyboard, sometimes crossing, sometimes almost a blur - we heard all the contrasting strands and layers in this piece: raunchy, thunderous, hot, sensuous, romantic, episodic, filmic, declamatory, dazzling, clattering, colourful, rugged, manic. At times it was like being hit by a musical whirlwind, a torrential onslaught of sound, a South American version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In the final, thrilling seconds, Hamelin pawed and punched the piano with his fist at the very bottom of the keyboard, as the score instructed (“Please don’t report me for this!” Hamelin said in his preamble to the piece).
More vertiginous virtuosity in Liszt’s B minor Sonata, a radical departure from the classical sonata form in its single-movement structure based on a simple motivic idea (a descending scalic figure). There is one innovation after another, yet it all makes perfect sense, and in it Liszt proves how fully he can develop and integrate these ideas into the whole. Although conceived as a sonata, with the traditional elements of first movement, scherzo, finale, Liszt’s sonata seems more closely related to Schubert’s 'Wanderer' Fantasy or Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major. Hamelin capitalised on the rhapsodic nature of this music, moving seamlessly from one “movement” to the next and offering many colours and layers, from the most delicately nuanced Andante sostenuto (the second “movement”) to a glittering Allegro energico finale, underpinned by that most stable of musical devices, the fugue.
After all the storms, the calm: two encores, Liszt’s transcription of Chopin’s My Joys, played with a melting tenderness, and the ethereal, fugitive Prelude, Op. 10 no. 5, by little-known Russian composer Leonid Sabaneyev, closed a magnificent evening.