Classical Music Guide - Monday, July 20, 2015 - Written by Donald Isler

Marc-André Hamelin

The 17th International Keyboard Institute and Festival is now underway at its new home, Hunter College. Filling the second half of July with nightly recitals, lectures, master classes and more, it is a mecca for those who love the piano and its repertoire. Two new features this year are a lecture by David Dubal before each recital, and the streaming of these lectures and the recitals. This new technology and the speed with which programs are assembled for online viewing is remarkable. Already the entire programs of the first two evenings can be viewed at the Festival's website (http://www.ikif.org).

Opening night followed IKIF tradition with a recital by Festival Founder and Director Jerome Rose. Last night it was the turn of Marc-André Hamelin to take the stage.

A Hamelin recital is an "event." He is one of the great pianists of the day. Not only a stupendous virtuoso who can play the big works of composers like Liszt and Rachmaninoff, he also has a probing intellect that leads him to perform less often heard works, ie the music of CPE Bach and Janacek and many others, as well as challenging contemporary pieces. Mr. Hamelin also continues the tradition of virtuosos who compose music. With such a command of the instrument, as well as a penetrating yet sensitive understanding of the works he plays, one can appreciate them in a rarefied state, as Mr. Hamelin has apparently surmounted the struggle to play even the hardest ones with apparent ease.

The first three works on the program were played without pause. Waldesrauschen and Un sospiro are well-known pieces but I had not heard Apparitions before. Does one usually notice the beauty of Liszt compositions, or just their brilliance? Apparitions emerged from very close to silence, and was quite lovely; far from "scary" as the name might suggest. This, and the following two pieces were gorgeously played. One was aware of Mr. Hamelin's wonderful finger work at times, simply because it made the music possible, not for its own sake.

By contrast, he went to town with the two operatic paraphrases. Mr. Hamelin played with great power, and often at terrific speed. In the Reminiscences de Norma there were sections that were wistful and tender. In other sections, with certain melodies and fast octaves underneath, and later, with a melody, bass line and fantastic figurations all at the same time, the effect could be hair-raising.

"Toward the Center," by Yehudi Wyner, is a 17-minute work which might be thought of as Romantically inspired with a contemporary harmonic language. Parts of it were pulsating, others poetic. It had some lovely, melodic material but also some dramatic outbursts. Mr. Hamelin, who, interestingly, turned pages for himself, practically dared his audience to not pay attention near the end by gradually diminishing the volume to almost nothing. The region between that, and no sound at all is so small, but, oh, how impressive it is when a pianist can successfully negotiate it!

One listens to the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata, which any pianist has heard dozens, if not hundreds of times, to hear what new ideas a performer brings to it. One couldn't help but notice the incredible drama at the end of the first movement (which led some people to applaud) or that the first two, fiendishly difficult movements did not have the sense of struggle in them that one often hears in the hands of a lesser pianist. In the last movement, perhaps the strangest work of Chopin, which sounds like it was composed in a later era, Mr. Hamelin focused on a few motives while surging forward with the rest of the material. But what particularly captured my interest was the way he played the D-Flat section in the middle of the funeral march movement. It was slower, wondrously expressive and deeper than in most performances.

Mr. Hamelin played one encore, a lovely (appropriately) flowing reading of Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau.


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