French-Canadian pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin has built a solid reputation for exploring the lesser known corners of the repertoire (his recordings span Alkan to Villa-Lobos via Godowsky and Medtner) and this Turner Sims recital was no exception. Beethoven and Schumann may have formed the core of his programme in weighty Romantic pianism, but it was the much less familiar presence of Russian-born Samuil Feinberg – a 20th-century modernist – that opened this enterprising event. No historical traverse imposed here, nor any comfortable sweeteners before the Feinberg, and judging by the relatively full house, regulars did not seem deterred.

Marc-André Hamelin © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

In the Piano Sonata no. 1 in F sharp minor / A major – the first of Feinberg’s twelve piano sonatas – Hamelin made clear his affinity for the composer in the clarity of articulation and warmth of phrasing. Its wistful lyricism, on occasion, seemed to be quasi-improvisatory and which, without any apparent unifying logic, came close to undermining the very title of the work. That said, this single movement structure unfolded with understated ease, its dramatic intentions eventually revealed to advantage in its closing pages. The influence of Scriabin in this first compact sonata lurked more fleetingly in Feinberg’s Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat minor / G flat major, a more turbulent work and inhabited by a more progressive harmonic idiom. Hamelin strode through its dense chordal writing and glittering figurative patterns, bringing a depth and variety of tone matching the work’s expressionistic manner. Attention to Feinberg’s detailed performance directions (burrracoso and lamentoso were just two) added to the sonata’s emotional restlessness but, despite Hamelin’s evident grasp of the work’s cumulative tensions, the work never quite convinced.

After only a short pause he launched into Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor “Appassionata”. Hunched over the keys in deep concentration, Hamelin brought to bear a formidable technique and impressive musicianship. There was plenty of tonal variety; thunderous and even sometimes threadbare, from largely undemonstrative playing within well-judged tempi. Fortissimo passages never startled in their violence, yet he conjured considerable intensity from the central development; clarity of tone was at the forefront of this rendition. The nobility of the second movement’s variation theme was nicely marked and its subsequent transformation lovingly shaped. On to the explosive Allegro ma non troppo, one of the most fearsome tests of endurance in all of Beethoven’s piano works. With only rare moments of calm this movement pushes players to the limits – and it’s not just the sheer volume of notes to worry about, more decisions about tempo in the knowledge that the pace quickens near the end requiring something in reserve for those final terrifying bars that hurtle without regard for stamina to the finish. This may not have been the most exciting rendition from this pianist, but there was no doubting he was in complete command of the notes – crisp articulation throughout was the order here – propelling the movement’s momentum with astonishing control and flawless technique.

Schumann’s Fantasy in C belongs to 1836 (some twenty years after the Beethoven) and can be regarded as a love letter by a man hopelessly in love with a young woman whose relationship with him has been forbidden by an unsympathetic father. It’s a wonderful work – its three-part structure suggestive of a sonata – packed with poetic feeling and grand, expansive gestures. There was a wonderful delicacy of tone and broadly-conceived tempi to the work’s emotional extremes; illuminating tenderness and turmoil in the first movement, life-affirming conviction in the second and passionate advocacy in the third.

As an encore Hamelin provided an opportunity to hear one of his own compositions, his Toccata on "L'homme armé", and which gave further demonstration, at least on this showing, that this pianist revels in alarmingly complex scores.