Anyone who knows the name Marc-André Hamelin will know him foremost for his technique. It is, to use a crude expression, what his brand is built upon. He is known to be able to handily dispatch the most taxing pieces in both the modern repertoire and the warhorse cabinet, the latter of which furnished much of his recent program at Symphony Center in Chicago – Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, for a start. Yet the fact of his technique obscures its place – in fact, its obscuring place – in his musicianship.

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

It is curious, in fact, that so much of the commentary and promotion surrounding his appearances focuses on technique, when presumably any number of top-tier (and second-tier) pianists have a technique that is just as able. Is he really head-and-shoulders above a Kissin, or an Argerich – so much so that it is worthy of mention? Perhaps, and perhaps not. It’s hard to compare techniques (though the whole culture of pianism as a spectator sport relies precisely on being able to do this), in large part because technique is always in service of something – call it a musical or a dramatic idea. Just talking about Hamelin’s dextrous hands misses a conversation about him as a musician, of which there is much to say, both good and bad.

He is, first of all, both aloof and ingratiating. For the recital this past Sunday, Hamelin launched the first half with Berg’s sonata, which was followed by a pair of Fauré pieces, resistant in their beauty. The Berg, for me, was the greatest success of the night. Its slowness and molasses-thick counterpoint prevented the famed Hamelin fingers from lifting off – as it happened, the most beautiful legato of the night was found here. Contrast this with his two encores, first the G sharp minor Prelude of Rachmaninov, and second something he calls “Chopin’s Minute Waltz, In Seconds”, a piece that is hilarious even if you don’t know the title. The opening melody in the left hand of the Rachmaninov Prelude was played choppily and, it seemed, without any attention to the long phrase. Could it be because the arpeggiated open octaves in the right hand were played as whip-fast lashings of the keyboard, with hardly any sense of a sustained swell?

I hardly wish to say how this well-known Prelude ought to be played in any instance: his was, to be fair, light enough to justify its use as an encore after the same composer’s gargantuan Second Sonata. But time and time again that afternoon, I found myself remarking silently on the ease and the speed of his figures, as if the music were disappearing beneath his hands, dozens of bars swallowed whole with nary a hiccup – one thinks of the whale in Pinocchio. And then I thought: why am I noticing his technique? Why, in other words, was his technique pulling me out of the music, drawing attention to itself, theatricalizing itself? Why, to put it another way, was I not so engrossed in his musical ideas that I forgot about how difficult this music was entirely?

And this is the paradox of Hamelin’s technique: it is both evanescently facile and insistently apparent. When the page gets black, it is as if Hamelin the musician switches modes, and suddenly everything changes: the dynamic is flatter, there is less contour across long phrases, and the notes skitter across the surface of a fluid line rather than being subsumed within it. It is as if, in spite of how easy all this music must be for him, he nevertheless cannot forget how difficult, or impressive, it is supposed to be – and wants us to be impressed by it. This may be unavoidable for a virtuoso, but the best ones perform that nearly indescribable sleight-of-hand in which we are made to believe, moment after moment, that the great challenge for them is musical rather than digital.

But Hamelin makes the musical challenges seem easy – that is, they are not challenges. This is especially a problem in the Rachmaninov sonata, which requires so much conviction in the long accumulating phrase, in every two-note slur and every arching chasm that spans the keyboard’s top and bottom. Hamelin often just moves his hands, and he is there. I found myself listening most closely in the pieces whose architecture resists this kind of simplification, to the Berg and to Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, which, as it happens, was one of the best performances of that piece I know.

Having mastered the difficulties of the Rachmaninov sonata, and of Gaspard de la nuit, Hamelin must now discover again how difficult they are. One hopes that his boredom will not lead him further down the path of classical canon in-jokes, which, as fun as they are, cannot make up for monumental works played with a breeziness that borders on indifference. Enough with Hamelin the technician. It is time for risk, for sincerity, and for faith.