At the beginning of his career, Marc-André Hamelin took a rather unconventional path to building his reputation, focusing on works at the fringe of the repertoire that either required a lot of studying in order to be properly played or could be considered stylistically derivative, or both. He has kept his passion for the odd and quirky alive, drawing attention to many undeservedly neglected composers and works, even if he has slowly migrated to a more standard pianistic fare.

Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Cannety-Clarke

For the first half of his most recent Carnegie Hall recital, Hamelin selected three works composed at the beginning of the 20th century in pre-revolutionary Russia. None is widely known. It’s rumored that even Scriabin forgot at some point of the existence of his Fantasie in B minor, composed during his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory. Despite its apparent improvisatory nature, marked by the double sign of Chopin and Liszt, the piece’s structure is actually close to a sonata Allegro, with a noteworthy D major second subject, poetically rendered by Hamelin. The pianist used the sustaining pedal a tad too much, thus softening some of the trademark unexpected harmonic shifts, but overall the Scriabin was an auspicious introduction to an exceptional recital.

With their shifting harmonies, the five short Sarcasms are among the most experimental works Prokofiev composed before leaving his motherland. Hamelin’s apparent dispassionateness and his avoidance of grand gestures were well suited to a rendition that took both the acerbic and the lyrical traits in “Tempestuoso” or “Allegro precipitato” at face value. The unpredictability of “Allegro rubato” and the descent into silence in “Precipitosissimo” were also masterly portrayed.

In his valiant quest to expand the piano literature, Hamelin has put a significant effort in exposing the “very polyphonic”, “extremely closely knit” – in his words – writings of Samuil Feinberg to a larger public. A remarkable pianist, but a composer full of self-doubt, Feinberg never published his Piano Sonata no. 3, his longest. Thursday night’s rendition was its first under Carnegie Hall’s roof. The soundscape in this dense musical wilderness is reminiscent of Scriabin’s, especially in the first movement with its frequent changes of tonality, and in the funeral march. The lengthy third part – featuring a complex chromatic fugue in the development section – was noteworthy more for its horrendous technical difficulties than for any specific musical ideas. Obviously, the challenges were no match for Hamelin’s prowess.

The pianist devoted the second part of his recital to a magnum opus: Schubert’s Piano Sonata no. 21 in B flat major. It was an outstanding rendition. After decades of playing the work, Hamelin seemed less interested in reading hints about Schubert’s tragic fate in the score and more in how the composer was able to achieve so much with so little. He focused on the all-present ambiguities, on the muted shifts in coloring and harmony. In the Molto Moderato beginning, the music gave the impression of slowly taking shape, like a boat emerging from deep fog. The left-hand rumbling sounded more decorative than menacing. In the Andante, played with amazing unpretentiousness and gentleness, sounds were occasionally at the limit of audibility. Caesurae were as important as melodic fragments. Even if the dynamic range wasn’t in fact limited, there was a certain minimalistic vein in Hamelin’s approach. The music never sounded declamatory, never bitter. Just nostalgic.

The evening concluded with three encores that echoed the recital's structure. The Barcarolle no. 3 was a superbly rendered example of a body of work – Fauré's piano compositions – rarely approached by today's virtuosos. Next was one of Debussy’s preludes, Général Lavine eccentric, from the second book – often played but draped here in a cloak of sarcasm that made the music sound fresh. Finally, there was a little fragment from one of Hamelin's own compositions – “Music Box” from Con intimissimo sentimentodeserving, like many other works in his programs, to be disseminated beyond groups of cognoscenti.