Concerts by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin are always challenging and exciting: a fearless approach to repertoire and unusual programme juxtapositions, combined with insightful musicianship, all underpinned by formidable technique create some of the most compelling musical experiences, and Hamelin’s latest Wigmore Hall offering was no exception.

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

Opening with Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata no. 2 was a typically bold choice, a work which the composer himself described as “not a nice sonata for a nice piano player”, and one which is likely to scare off audiences and performers alike. Aside from the technical demands placed on the pianist – avant-garde devices such as polytonality, sound clusters, and un-metered rhythm – drawing all the elements together to create a cohesive, comprehensible whole is the main challenge of this large-scale work.

Charles Ives began work on the sonata in 1909, following a visit with his wife to Concord, Massachusetts. Ives was fascinated by the American Transcendentalist movement, which was centred around Concord in the mid-19th century, and whose leading lights were the writers and philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May, who wrote Little Women). The sonata’s four movements are impressionistic pictures and sketches of these key figures, and by creating such vivid programme music, with 20th-century musical devices, Ives creates a work that is both romantic and innovative. Embedded within the work is the four-note “fate” motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ives preferred Emerson’s interpretation of this motif: instead of “fate knocking at the door”, it represents “the soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries”. Ives intertwines this with agitated arpeggios, snatches of military marches, declamatory chords and simple evocations of hymn tunes, and the motif serves as a binding device that runs through all four movements. Less concerned with playability than conveying his ideas, in this sonata Ives seeks to create a world of its own which is both structured and unexpected.

Of Emerson’s prose, Ives stated “the paragraphs do not cohere”, and indeed the “Emerson” opening movement of the Sonata appears on first hearing to be a myriad array of disparate strands and undercurrents. The structure runs counter to the usual European sonata paradigm (an opening theme which is then developed and recapitulated), and instead begins with complexity, its intricacies gradually stripped down to their essential components. Marc-André Hamelin was adept at projecting the differing elements, making sense of the music’s ebb and flow with a confidence and authority born of a long association with this Sonata.

If Ives felt Emerson was at his greatest “in the realms of revelation – natural disclosure”, Hamelin was equally accomplished in his ability to reveal the range of sonorities of the modern concert grand piano. This was particularly evident in the mercurial “Hawthorne” movement, an exuberant scherzo, after the craggy contrasts of the first movement, which danced and twirled before a brief mysterious passage during which note-clusters are played with a strip of wood over a haunting distant melody.

The reassuring, hymn-like opening melody of “The Alcotts” contains the most obvious reference to Beethoven’s Fifth, but in this movement it is poignant and homely, rather than ominous. Hamelin’s rich cantabile tone continued through this theme into a second figure suggesting a Scottish air played on a parlour piano by the Alcott children.

The final movement, “Thoreau” is the calming breeze which wafts down over the crags of “Emerson”. A questioning and meditative movement, it was played with profound poise and sensitive dynamic shadings, its melodic line evoking Ives’ image of Henry David Thoreau playing his flute by a misty pond, hardly interrupted by the distant tolling of the Concord bell.

Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 3 seemed at first to be an unlikely pairing with the granite-hewn scale of the Ives sonata, but in fact the two works sat comfortably together, the breadth of the Ives reflected in the grand five-movement Classical architecture of Brahms’ work, and the masterful handling of contrasting material. The fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony also makes appearances in this sonata, another connecting thread with the Ives.

As in the Ives sonata, Hamelin was alert to the contrasting textures, motifs, moods and tempi, effortlessly switching between the broad romantic gestures of the opening motif to the tender lyricism of the slow movement, its noble melody played with a warm tone and a sense of profound calm. The sincerity with which this movement was delivered continued right through to a soaring finale.

What better encore than the delicate simplicity of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C, K545, performed with a spare elegance.