In a setting Liszt himself would have approved of – the grand hall, the plush red velvet swags and tails, the full nine feet of gleaming Steinway stretched across a stage bathed in a curious blue light, the eager Prommers craning in expectation – Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin celebrated the composer’s 200th birthday in a recital of coruscating virtuosity and extreme pianism.

© BBC / Fran Kaufman
© BBC / Fran Kaufman

This was my first late Prom, and for my concert companion, her first ever Prom, so the evening was unique for both of us. The concert itself marked a return to the Proms by Marc-André Hamelin after 17 years, and the only solo piano recital of the season.

“Virtuoso” is a title Marc-André Hamelin wears somewhat uncomfortably; the term is perhaps used too often to describe the flashy on-stage pyrotechnics and rockstar theatricality of pianists such as Lang Lang. But if the term is applied in the Lisztian sense – the composer-pianist who has spent a lifetime living with the music and whose superlative technique underpins all he does – then for Hamelin the title is entirely appropriate.

Hamelin has “known Liszt all his life” (Andrew Macgregor, BBC Radio 3). This “total immersion” in the music, technically, intellectually and emotionally, was evident from the first notes of the Legende No. 2, ‘St Francis of Paola walking on the waves’, a retelling, in pure programme music, of the story of St Francis of Paola who walked across the Straits of Messina after the ferryman declared “If he is a saint let him walk on the water”. The opening theme, a sacred chorale, began with a slight hesitancy, as if the saint were “finding his feet” on the water, before growing gradually more confident and stately. The waves ripple, then swell and swirl, roll and boil, but throughout the glorious hymn-like theme is never fully submerged. The virtuosity is in the mighty arpeggiated octaves and rumbling scalic motifs which threaten to overwhelm the Saint before he emerges triumphant at the close of the piece. The ending is prayer-like, yet bathed in glory, with not the slightest hint of grandiloquence.

At the piano, Marc-André Hamelin is unflamboyant, modest even, his upper body hardly moves and the only gestures he offers are those which benefit the music alone - but his hands move with a dazzling agility, ripping through octaves and filigree passagework with a rapidity and surgical precision that made my own hands ache in sympathy.

This was even more evident in the ‘Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H’, a piece originally conceived for organ as a homage to the grandeur of the instrument, and a tribute to J.S. Bach in the treatment of the four notes B flat, A, C and H (B natural in German). Here, Hamelin harnessed the entire capabilities of the piano to recreate the sonic richness of the organ in a piece of full-blown romanticism: climactic, suspenseful, unstable, improvisational, extrovert, pensive. Tenebrous and rumbling, the Fugue, which is embedded in the Fantasia, emerges as if from some dark outer firmament, and contains sections of chromaticism redolent of Bach’s famous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’. The piece has three climaxes, and just when you think it’s finally over, the beast stirs again in a fantastic coda. Executed with a formidable sternness, it was impressive and intimidating, a massive, well-judged rendition of pure might and vitality. Hamelin’s command of such powerful, show-stopping music was apparent throughout and it was easy to imagine how much 19th century audiences must have loved this kind of music, broken piano strings and all.

In complete contrast, the ‘Bénédiction’ reveals Liszt’s mystical dimension. Here is Liszt the priest and poet in a work of profoundly spiritual introspection and seriousness, music that is both glorious and soothing, ecstatic and peaceful, and which floated and shimmered with a rare luminosity in Hamelin’s skilled hands. At times, it was as if Hamelin were playing entirely for himself: intense, personal, intimate, each note perfectly placed and judged. As my friend said afterwards, “you craved another note, and you got one: never too soon, never too late”, and the long pause at the end of the Benediction before the rapturous applause was the ultimate compliment.

The final pieces of the recital, ‘Venezia e Napoli’ represent Liszt the traveller, musical postcards from his peregrinations, complete with a gondolier’s barcarolle, the rocking of boats just seen through the Venetian mist, an operatic Canzone, reminders that simple melodies can conjure up the most fantastic invention. The concert ended as it had begun: the Tarantella, originating from a harmless little Neapolitan song, played at a jaw-dropping tempo with split-second accuracy.

Two encores followed, the charming ‘Waldenrauschen’ (Forest Murmurs), an intimation of wind in the forest, and the Nocturne ‘En Rêve’ (Dreaming), a most appropriate end to a wonderful late-night Prom.

*****