New York Times - Monday, July 31, 2006 - Written by Bernard Holland

The Pianist Marc-André Hamelin Goes Beyond Technical Wizardry in Pieces Rare and Familiar

Unusual physical skills at the piano make good things happen, but they function as stigmas as well. The start of Marc-André Hamelin’s public career carried with it a reputation for extraordinary fluency, a technique that could bring Balakirev’s “Islamey,” Albéniz’s “Iberia” and other horrific tests of virtuosity to their knees. Maybe Mr. Hamelin’s musical mind and heart have emerged from behind that blur of flying fingers and crashing octaves. Maybe they were there all the time, and we just didn’t pay enough attention.

Mr. Hamelin’s appearance on Saturday at Mannes College indulged his taste for the big and the florid (Paul Dukas’s E-flat minor sonata) but also returned to one of the repertory’s sacred gospels, the Schubert B-flat sonata from the composer’s last year. This was all part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival, which finished yesterday. The college’s modest upstairs auditorium was packed with students of the instrument young and old.

Dukas lived his musical life alongside Ravel and Debussy but did not write a great deal, occupying his time early on with music criticism and later with academia. What survives in memory 71 years after his death are the vocal and instrumental pieces, so the piano sonata from the turn of the 20th century arrived on Saturday as a minor revelation to many. Its four movements are products of a culture that had more time, more love of rhetoric, and a patience to sit back and to absorb it.

The heart then was fixed perhaps more prominently on the sleeve, and with no microphones to be had, the loud voice was a medium of choice. The piece is filled with little surprises: unexpected changes of key, sudden loud-soft shifts and, at the end of the Scherzo movement, a particularly interesting series of comic doodles and silences.

Elsewhere there are a lot of notes, all handily digested by Mr. Hamelin. It was a fine opportunity to hear a piece other pianists don’t play, but I wonder how many in the audience would jump at the chance to repeat the experience. There is the hint of a swayback in this long, effusive and ambling war horse. Maybe if we had more time, maybe if we were less in a hurry. …

In 1828 the Schubert sonata sat on a line separating the Classical tradition of Mozart and the open Romantic abandon about to be let out into the world. Performers can go either way and do it legitimately.

Mr. Hamelin chose to look ahead, with generously formed phrases, tempos unafraid to bend and contract, big modern-piano effects and rhetorical silences. Here was virtuosity well used: a performance as scrupulous and considered as it was deeply felt.

One of the less-mentioned wonders of this wondrous piece is not the first movement or the second, but the gap between the two. To come unwarned upon the C-sharp minor chord that begins the Andante, and to do so with the lingering B-flatness of the first movement still in the ear, adds a dimension of mystery like no other I can think of.


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