I have commented before about Marc-André Hamelin’s ability to tackle anything the piano repertoire can throw at him: the craggy, disparate edifice of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, the mannered classicism of Haydn, and the sweeping romanticism of Liszt. His latest concert, part of his residency at Wigmore Hall in 2013/14, combined peerless technical mastery, cool perfection, pristine beauty and profound musical understanding in a quartet of works by Medtner, Janáček, Ravel and Hamelin himself, with the London première of his own composition. The programme traced a darkly lit narrative from the brooding opening bars of Hamelin’s atmospheric Barcarolle, through the sprawling musical landscapes of Medtner’s Night Wind piano sonata in E minor, inspired by a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, to the poignant intimacy of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path and the strange night-time fantasies of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.

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

Hamelin’s modest manner at the piano – he hardly moves at all, yet he plays with incredible ease and fluidity – suggests an unemotional detachment, but he captures the spirit of the music perfectly, whatever he is playing. There are no distractions, no unnecessary gestures or false sentiment, no surface artifice, and his extreme stillness allows the music to speak for itself and the audience the opportunity to concentrate fully on what they are hearing: at times during the performance, one almost forgot there was a pianist there at all.

And yet, who else but Hamelin could bring sense to the turbulent extended narrative of Medtner’s Night Wind sonata, or tender introspection to Janacek’s highly personal On an Overgrown Path?

The first piece of the concert was Hamelin’s own composition, a brooding Barcarolle which, with its mysterious bass rumblings, tinkling Takemitsu-esque motifs high in the treble and colourful chord clusters, prefigured Ravel’s “Ondine” from the end of the programme, and suggested a sea voyage fraught with hazards, both real and imaginary.

The Barcarolle provided a pertinent scene-setter for the Medtner, a work vast in scale, for both pianist and audience (a single-movement construction, it lasts around 35 minutes). For the pianist who can make sense of Ives’ Concord Sonata, this presented no difficulties in the least. The work references the composers whom Medtner admired: Chopin, Liszt, and its dedicatee, Rachmaninov. In it, Medtner suggests both the tumult of nature in a recurring “wind” motif and more metaphorical concepts. The work shares the vastness of Rachmaninov’s musical and native landscape with the sensuous unpredictability of Scriabin, and Hamelin gave an audacious and mesmeric account replete with gusts of semiquavers, torrential dynamics and timbre, and thunderous climaxes. The final phrase was tossed lightly from the piano with sardonic wit and élan.

Seven movements from Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path offered a more introspective start to the second half. Composed between 1900 and 1912, the pieces recall “distant memories”, including Janacek’s life in his native Hukvaldy and the death of his 21-year-old daughter from typhoid in 1903, and their miniature structure belies their emotional depth and poignancy. Alert to the intimacy of these pieces, Hamelin offered an evocative reading, revealing the delicate subtleties and subtexts of the music. “In Tears” and “Good Night!” sensitively probed the deepest corners of the heart and soul with an exquisite lightness of touch.

Famously challenging for the pianist, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was inspired by Aloysius Bertrand’s poem of the same title. It is a triptych of pieces, “Ondine”, “Le gibet” and “Scarbo”, three phantasmagorical tone poems, weird nocturnes which incorporate the technical demands of a keyboard study in the post-Lisztian virtuoso tradition. Here Hamelin’s rare ability to combine technical virtuosity with a thoughtful and intensely intimate performance really came to the fore. He made light of “Ondine”’s rippling arpeggios, shimmering chords and an expressive melodic line, while creating a sense of weightlessness despite the rich textures of the score. The desolate tolling bell of “Le gibet”, signalled by a persistent B flat pedal point, conjured up a gruesome night-time scenario in a movement played with intense control and concentration. By contrast, “Scarbo” (a depiction of a dwarf) was a grotesque romp, thrumming and bouncing across the keyboard.

Three encores, carefully selected to complement the music that had gone before, were delivered with the same breathtaking technical facility and musical sensitivity. Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau shifted and glimmered, its glistening mystery enhanced by tasteful pedaling, which lent a satisfying piquancy to the more climactic moments. Chopin’s Minute Waltz began familiarly enough, but digressed into improvised caricature as farcical seconds embellished the famous melody, thus recalling the extemporizing of Liszt and his cohort during the “golden age” of pianism of the 19th century. Finally, a busy Étude by Paul de Schloezer amply demonstrated, if further amplification were required, Hamelin’s extraordinary pianistic artistry.