Marc-André Hamelin at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Marc-André Hamelin is renowned for the demon speed of his finger work and his many recordings of difficult piano compositions. More importantly, at speed and in difficulty, Hamelin commands a smooth legato and a flexible sense of tempo. His playing last night in the intimacy of the Jane Mallett theatre was remarkable for a spontaneity that brought out the polyphonic and rhythmic richness of a program that was varied yet unified by a sense of song.

His two Chopin selections, “Ballade in A-flat”(1841), and “Barcarolle in F-sharp” (1848) are taken from the folk song tradition. Hamelin’s own compositions, two études, are based on songs by Goethe and Tchaikovsky. The Godowsky piece (1920) works up waltzes by Strauss (transcribed and published by Hamelin’s father) on the subject of “Wine, Women, and Song.” Weissenberg’s “Sonata in a State of Jazz” (1982) is based on popular song forms including tango, blues, charleston and samba. Finally, Haydn’s sonatas are never far from the sound of the human voice. Hamelin’s playing always reminds us of the human utterance that underlies all music.

His account of Haydn’s early “Sonata No. 38 in F” was full of charm, purity, rich tone colours and subtle variations. The ‘Adagio’ so evocative of remembering, suggested a kinship with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The darker, more highly contrasted Sonata No. 55 in B-flat” had a kind of wildness in it that brought to mind a saying attributed to Mr. Hamelin’s teacher Russell Sherman: “ One should play the piano only if one can do so in a manner that has a streak in it of personal wildness and conviction.”

Hamelin in a state of jazz is Hamelin using his considerable chops to have fun, and that is how he comes off during his leap from Haydn into Alexis Weissenberg’s four part “Sonata in a State of Jazz.”  The moody riffs of the ‘tango’ are elegant Ellingtonian, urbane Gershwinian, piano bar on Mars music. The dissonant chords of the ‘charleston’ sound like Cecil Taylor and breathe that breaking-out jazz feeling. The ‘blues’ movement is balladic, melodic, sweet and sour. The ‘samba’ is hurried, choppy, angular, fractured and the mind clings to fragments of melody in this maelstrom of rhythmic textures.

The Chopin ‘Barcarolle’ tells a story in a frilly way and carries you off into the tale of a throbbing heart that surges with passion and ebbs into resignation to rise again in a minor key on some floaty finger work to a steady state of tender passion. The ‘Ballade in A-flat’ is full of rainbows and dramatic rhythms, “like someone whose speech becomes fiery with enthusiasm.”

Hamelin’s own “Étude No. 8, “Erlkonig” (after Goethe) 2007” is remarkable for the fact that the music follows the words of the text so closely that you can almost hear the syllables and sentence rhythms behind the music which resembles the strums of a harp around the lyric utterance of a bard. His “Etude No. 7, after Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby for the left hand (2006)” employs the reverse of guitar picking technique appears. Hamelin plays most of the melody with the thumb of his left hand and the chords with the fingers. The music is tonal, melodic and sweet.

Melodic and sweet with a dash of the wild and strange is how I would thumbnail this resounding evening.

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