My final visit to London’s Wigmore Hall this season (the hall is closed during August) was to hear one of my piano heroes, Canadian pianist and composer Marc-Andre Hamelin. Each of his London concerts I’ve attended has offered coruscating technical facility combined with musical insight and the impression of a thoughtful musician who is very connected to the music he plays. This is in part created through his economy of physical movement when he plays. There are no unnecessary gestures in Hamelin’s playing, no pianistic histrionics or flashy pyrotechnics (except in the music itself), and because he never gets in the way of the music, his performances are concentrated and intense.

Marc-André Hamelin © Fran Kaufman
Marc-André Hamelin
© Fran Kaufman

This concert was no exception, its intensity made even greater by the inclusion of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, the “Funeral March”, with its third movement theme made so infamous by its associations with the deaths of Russian Communist leaders, and its extraordinary and ghostly finale.

The first half of the concert was built around Schubert’s “little” A major Sonata, D664, perhaps the most genial and inspired of all of Schubert’s sonatas for piano. This was preceded by the little-known Andante Inédit by John Field, inventor of the nocturne, and an important influence on much of Chopin’s piano miniatures. A single, chordal theme forms the basis for a series of variations, Schubertian in their intimacy and invention, and Hamelin brought an expressive eloquence to it through delicacy of touch and a restrained yet warm dynamic palette.

A similar warmth and intimacy was carried through the Schubert sonata, its dynamics suitably nuanced to highlight the ethereal qualities of Schubert’s writing, especially in the meditative middle movement. Given Hamelin’s reputation for performing vertiginously virtuosic piano music, it was particularly enjoyable to hear him engage so intently with Schubert’s introspective writing. The first half concluded with the sixth of Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne, based on three of Schubert’s waltzes and taken beyond the pure dance in Liszt’s treatment of texture and keyboard elaboration.

After the interval, a contemporary work, Toward the Center by Yehudi Wyner, a through-composed work which unfolds from frantic scurryings, stentorian bass chords and percussive interjections before moving into more reflective territory. Hamelin brought to it his distinctive clarity and control, highlighting dance motifs and melodic fragments as a reminder of what had gone before in the first half.

The Chopin sonata was heroic, its first theme spooling out from the piano with an insistent urgency which contrasted beautifully with the second subject. A similar briskness opened the second movement, offset by the lyrical trio. The infamous Marche funèbre was noble, serious and commanding, its second theme somewhat earthbound but no less elegant for that. The spooky final movement was a hectic yet subdued fugitive dash across the keys.

Two encores followed: a pellucid Reflets dans l’eau and a fleeting and witty miniature by Eugene Goossens, which lightened the mood sufficiently after Chopin and a most satisfying concert.

****1