The virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin played a program of works by Bach, Fauré, Ravel and Rachmaninov, bracketed by his own Variations on a theme by Paganini. Last March in Toronto, when Hamelin snuck this piece into the program as an encore, I wrote that it was “ten minutes of the most fun you’ll ever have crowding around a piano at the end of party.” Now that the Variations are in the program, and Hyperion has recently issued Hamelin’s 12 Études in all the minor keys, we might as well begin identifying Hamelin as a “pianist-composer” in the same league as Rachmaninov.
Some of his choices in the evening’s program become intriguing from this point of view. For example, why did Hamelin choose the 1931 version of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata in B flat minor over the original 1913 version, considering that Rachmaninov cut 120 bars and simplified passages of the first movement’s development section, making it technically less difficult to play? On the other hand, what inspired Hamelin to choose the Szanto transcription of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, which is much more elaborate and more difficult to play than the established transcriptions by Liszt, or by Szanto’s teacher, Busoni?
Szanto upgraded the heading of his transcription of the Fantasia from “Grave” (Liszt) to “Grandioso”: accordingly, Hamelin’s right hand floods the hall with a filigree of single notes, then his left hammers the floodgates shut with a chord sustained as a thunderclap in the mountains. A dark, romantic drama develops as the Fantasia portion unfolds, alternating light-fingered melodies that dance in cascading scales through a terrain of thundering four-note chords and and booming triplets, reminiscent, oddly, of Rachmaninov. The Fugue, when it appears, is distinct, formal, free of rhetoric, its four voices delightfully musical. The piece ended with a return to the grand, chromatic sonorities of the Fantasia.
The grandeur of Bach gave way to Fauré’s charming miniatures. Fauré, like Bach, was trained in church harmonies that carried into his music colourful modal harmonies, but Fauré emphasized pianistic sparkle over the organ’s grandeur. His Impromptu no. 2 in F minor, one of six he composed in that form throughout his life, opens with a flurry of humming-bird wings and dances lightly to a melodic Tarantella, not loud or fast or complicated, but rather romantic. The quick flurries and lyric dances alternate a few times in a short space, and subside. Barcarolle no. 3 in G flat major, one of thirteen Fauré wrote inspired by Chopin, has in its brief run a kind of tidal flow back and forth between major and minor, it’s alternating lyrical surges embellished with trilling, as Marguerite Long famously remarked, “like sea foam on the edge of a wave.”
Hamelin brought us into the heart of the evening with Ravel’s homage to Satan, a.k.a. Gaspard de la nuit. Though not himself a virtuoso pianist, Ravel has stated that his objective in writing this piece, which was “the very devil to write,” was to challenge the level of pianistic difficulties of Balakirev’s Islamey, and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. In fact, Ravel’s three tone poems that make up Gaspard take the requirements of tone colour and shading to an unprecedented level of exactitude. Hamelin made the playing of it look easy.
The Ondine portion began issuing in watery ripples from Hamelin’s right hand. The melody developed in the middle octaves as a passionate pulse that rose in volume and pitch, oddly, at a slanted angle, as if athwart the baseline. Another odd thing was that as Hamelin’s lines became more richly textured, they began to float weightlessly, testament that he was fulfilling by his touch Ravel’s requirements. A hypnotic tolling, of ominous, dissonant chords whose chromatic repetitions seemed to be mocking the delicate melody was central to the second tone poem, “Le gibet,” portraying church bells at twilight around a public death by hanging. It has been said it requires two dozen different kinds of touch to paint this picture, and I have no doubt Hamelin did it. The third poem, "Scarbo" (the dwarf) depicts an epic drama of deathly fear scampering among shadowy lanes and staircases. The drama is so extreme it verges into melodrama and finally caricature. Hamelin’s interpretation was cohesive, and his virtuosity appears unquestionable.
There was nothing very new in the second half, and perhaps it was a relief that the entertainment continued unabated without taking the intensity higher. Hamelin’s Variations on a theme by Paganini proved to be just as dazzling and fun as the first time I’d heard them, with the gain of a few nuances of jazz, especially ragtime ideas, and jokey references to classical clichés from Beethoven and others. Hamelin, modestly secure as composer-pianist, continues to have fun with music.
He also gave us three wonderful performances of Rachmaninov: Prelude in G major; Prelude in G sharp minor; and Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor (1913, rev.1931). It seemed to me the sonata, as Hamelin played it, gained lyrical simplicity and delicacy of colour from the later revisions.