As part of a series of piano recitals in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein this month dedicated to Musik im Umbruch, Marc-André Hamelin juxtaposed three Russian composers with Schubert’s long misunderstood final piano sonata. The opening piece was the most clearly between two worlds: Georgy Catoire, a Russian native with French roots, sounds like Rachmaninov and Debussy had a love-child, and his Quatre Morceaux wander from salon-style melodies with straightforward, singable cantilena to close with a virtuosic etude. 

Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Cannety-Clarke

Throughout, the Montreal native impressed with the embedded quality of his sound. There was no flightiness and nothing tossed off in his playing, and his right foot was as worth watching as his hands. Though it is fashionable at the moment in the piano community to offer whispers of sound drenched in pedal, Hamelin was having none of it. His sound filled out all four corners of the hall to their crevices, and he had plenty of ping but never blurred with the sostenuto. The result was an intentional, ringing Klang – without cheating – rich in well defined melodies.

This full, deep in the keyboard approach was particularly satisfying as we moved to Prokofiev's Sarcasms, which Hamelin clearly relished and knows intimately. The opening tempestoso was darkly chunky and exciting, and the Smanioso triple fortissimos a rich wonder, which made the pianissimo into which it dissolves at the end even more moving. The one movement Scriabin sonata, titled White Mass in harmony with the composer’s characteristic mysticism, was likewise a treat. Scriabin was deeply mystic, a tendency reflected in flighty motifs in his music, his unique and tritone-rich harmonic language and very deep, liturgical nods. Hamelin negotiated this combination of grounded and winged material beautifully; his fingers flew across the keyboard, but the tether to a richly grounded sound was never broken.

Schubert’s final piano sonata (B flat major, D.960), written a mere two months before the composer’s death, is likewise a perfect playground to showcase ringing sound, melodic continuity and play with the question of whether Schubert is truly a child of the classical school or the first full-blooded Romantic. Hamelin falls in the latter category, and took all the time needed in the opening movement to fill in the curves without resorting to facile sentimentality. The opening theme came back repeatedly, always slightly transformed, and one pianissimo rendition – still speaking to the back of the hall – made my hairs stand on end. Though I have heard the Scherzo a bit more lighthearted and playful, the Trio was delightfully hinky. Similarly, in the final movement, a rondo in effect, the opening theme felt just slightly pedantic, but the secondary theme left absolutely nothing to be desired.