One of music’s first “rock stars”, Franz Liszt created the piano recital: performing without a score, turning the piano sideways – so audiences could admire his profile – striding on and off the platform between numbers. He became the epitome of the piano virtuoso, rattling off elaborate compositions, hair flying about his shoulders, dazzling listeners with the sheer number of notes flowing from his fingers. Marc-André Hamelin may not have the flowing locks, but the notes certainly poured forth from Wigmore Hall's Steinway in his recital in which Liszt filled the first half. But virtuosity can be relentless.

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

Even in the rustling Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), Hamelin didn't stint on the volume, to the detriment of any real tranquility, and Un sospiro groaned and growled rather than sighed before finally subsiding into something gentler. Muscular playing and digital dexterity were more appropriate in the two operatic paraphrases which followed. Rather than a pot-pourri of hits, the Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's Ernani focuses on one particular melody – the tremendous Act III ensemble before Charlemagne's tomb, where Carlos, newly crowned as Holy Roman Emperor, forgives Ernani, Elvira and the conspirators. In the score, Liszt marks the noble theme “O sommo Carlo” to be played forte, but “canto sostenuto”, but Hamelin played far louder, hammering out the notes for all he was worth. Although fatigued by the volume, the playing was impressive in terms of the dazzling fistfuls of notes ripped from the keyboard.

The Réminiscences de Norma, which begins with a very similar theme to that from the Ernani paraphrase, draws on several numbers from Bellini's opera, though not its most famous aria, “Casta diva” (which Sigismond Thalberg, who undertook “piano duels” against Liszt in Paris, used in his fantasy). Hamelin's playing encompassed the magisterial and the brooding remarkably strongly here, the piano even imitating the whole chorus at full tilt.

After the interval, it was as if Hamelin had recalibrated his volume dial, for the Feinberg sonatas which followed were much more contained and reflective. Samuil Feinberg, a teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire, composed his first two sonatas in the year that Scriabin – his inspiration – died. Each is in a single movement just under ten minutes long, yet teeming with intricate detail. Hamelin voiced right-hand triplets with great fluidity, navigating tempo changes deftly.

Sergey Lyapunov's Transcendental Studies take over where Liszt stopped. Composed between 1897 and 1905, they continued the key sequence that Liszt's twelve studies followed. Liszt had intended to create studies in all 24 major and minor keys, but only half-completed the job. Hamelin concluded with two items from Lyapunov's series. The Lesghinka rippled with oriental delicacy, taking its theme from Balakirev's Islamey (a finger-cruncher designed to outdazzle Liszt), but given a less extrovert treatment by Lyapunov. No.12 from the set, dedicated to the memory of Liszt himself, resembles a hazy memory of one of the master's Hungarian Rhapsodies, reaching a stormy climax. Hamelin was in his element here, before dispatching wistful Schubert and impish Haydn encores.  

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