Marc-André Hamelin Connects Past and Present
The revelation of the pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s perfectly conceived recital on Sunday evening at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College didn’t come in one of the Liszt or Chopin pieces. It was the contemporary work sandwiched between them: Yehudi Wyner’s “Toward the Center,” a solo written in 1988 to commemorate the retirement of a longtime teacher at the Yale School of Music.
It begins with a brazen, almost stentorian flourish that’s left to resonate before the pianist proceeds, as if with caution, and then suddenly dives again into thickets of activity. Contrasts emerge, but subtle ones. The mood grows reflective; fragments of melody keep coming to subdued endings, after which the music seems unsure how, or even if, it should proceed.
There’s a section dogged by a sober three-note motif, and then pristine scales, like descending staircases made of ice. Near the end, the music starts shyly to swing, softly moving toward the keyboard’s heights before resolving in a light tolling, growing ever fainter.
The piece is a little masterpiece, quiet and glowing, and Mr. Hamelin, with his preternatural clarity and control, qualities that in him don’t preclude sensitivity and even poetry, was an ideal interpreter on Sunday, when he appeared as one of the highlights of the 16-day International Keyboard Institute & Festival. When the performance ended, and Mr. Wyner was called to the stage, he bowed not to the audience but to Mr. Hamelin, giving gratitude where it was due.
“Toward the Center” wasn’t just thrown into the recital, a nod to contemporary music. Its changeable emotions seemed to emerge organically from the five Liszt works on the first half of the program, and its lyrical impulses led sensibly into Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 at the end.
Those Liszt pieces were divided into two sets: first, three delicate studies and then two of his deliriously virtuosic arrangements of operatic themes. Mr. Hamelin more than meets the technical requirements of this second group, but the colors he brought to the quieter pieces were even more impressive.
The first from the set of three “Apparitions” (S. 155) began with haziness in the left hand, cut with crystalline precision in the right. Mr. Hamelin drizzled unexpected curls of ornamentation into the regularity of “Waldesrauschen” (S. 145, No. 1). These pieces pointed not just to Mr. Wyner’s work, but also to Debussy’s glittering “Reflets dans l’eau,” played as an encore.
Mr. Hamelin’s restraint, even when he’s ferocious, gave Chopin’s “Funeral March” sonata a particularly somber cast. In the third movement, which gives the work its nickname, the lullabylike interlude was more earthly than spiritual, an evocation of what we leave behind.