It isn’t often, nowadays, that a pianist opens a concert with one of his own compositions. There was a time, perhaps spanning the centuries from Mozart to Liszt and encompassing a host of lesser luminaries, when all the great pianists composed, or at least improvised. We have Stephen Hough, maybe Thomas Adès, and, in the years to come, Daniil Trifonov. But above all Marc-André Hamelin keeps the tradition alive.

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

Hamelin has recorded one extraordinary disc of works, including his set of Études, which largely stay within the bounds of a slightly kooky and certainly brave romanticism. His Barcarolle, though, is a new addition, and it received its New York première in this Zankel Hall concert. Think Barcarolles at the piano and you inevitably think of Chopin, but Hamelin’s work is completely different, more of a starlit seascape than an shadowy glide over the Venetian canals. Its arpeggiated, octave depths steadily give way to pleasantly discordant figures higher and higher on the keyboard, as if Hamelin is improvising the sparkle of light on the crests of shallow waves. A central section owes a great deal to Messiaen, winding slowly down the keyboard over a quarter pedal, before the opening music returns, concluding with a question, twinkling into the night. As often with Hamelin’s compositions, much of this Barcarolle sounds like music dimly recalled from elsewhere, even if you can’t quite remember quite how or why. Atmospheric it certainly is, but on this occasion its stasis sounded timid.

Timid Nicolas Medtner’s Night Wind sonata is not. This work had never before been performed at Carnegie Hall, and it isn’t hard to hear why. It’s one of those gargantuan late-romantic effusions that goes on forever without really going anywhere at all, less a gust of wind than entire weather front. Imagine hearing the climaxes of all Rachmaninov’s gaudiest works smashed together without a break, and repeated for over half an hour, and you’re somewhere close. Worse, it’s full of false peaks, including a rather cruel series of chords that seem to promise a final resolution barely a third of the way in. Bloated, philosophical without cause, and naturally dedicated to Rachmaninov, it of course demands the fullest concentration and technical skill from the pianist, both of which Hamelin is amply capable of. He is a great Scriabin pianist, and a similar kind of talent is called for here: structural vision wedded to virtuosity that is at once aggressive and swooning. Medtner sets each of the most challenging tests a pianist can face, including a bizarre boogie-woogie fugue at one point, and each time Hamelin characteristically dealt with them with an endearing nonchalance.

The second half was given over to Schubert’s second set of Impromptus, that great quartet of pieces that, as is forever noted in programme notes, Schumann thought was really a sonata. Sometimes pianists indeed play them that way, but less frequently do you hear them played as if through Schumann’s own ears. That’s what Hamelin gave us. A revealing clarity marked the first piece, which was notable for its freedom of pulse, its subtlety of voicing in the dialogic middle part, and what appeared to be a quite bizarre piece of improvisation in its coda. The beautifully rocking second piece had a poised elegance that just (only just) avoided indulgence, while the set of variations that makes up the third had a gorgeous lilt and an almost dilettantish air, the product of extraordinary sensitivity of touch. The finale, marked scherzando, revelled in wrong-footing the listener, to the extent of deconstructing the overall line. I’ve heard performances that more effectively put across Schubert’s emotional ambiguity, especially from pianists who take a classically structural view, but Hamelin pulled off his view of the work with a fine panache.

The encores were rather more special. The first of Debussy’s Images, “Reflets dans l’eau”, had colour and variety that went far beyond anything even an orchestra would find possible, and a humanity that is hard to come by in this composer’s soundscapes. Then came what at first hearing was Chopin’s ubiquitous “Minute” Waltz, deliciously mocked at the return of its first section in a whirl of improvisatory destruction that nodded, at one point, to the younger Johann Strauss. And to conclude, a rarity that Rachmaninov himself used only to warm up: Paul de Schlözer’s A flat major Étude.