Saturday, December 14, 2013

What Marc-André Hamelin can and can't do

The pianist in repose.

It's hard to argue with technical brilliance - particularly when it comes to pianists.

So many listeners - and critics -  just don't.

But sometimes it seems as if the technically brilliant are inevitably drawn to argue against themselves.

Take the strange case of Marc-André Hamelin, the French-Canadian virtuoso who now makes his home in the Hub, and who is surely one of the most technically gifted musicians on the planet.  (If you doubt me, listen to his renditions of Godowsky's left-handed takes on Chopin.) There seems to be nothing this musical mandarin can't play - and his slyly distant, Gallic good looks (above) hint not only at controlled sensuality, but immense reserves of musical intelligence - which counts a lot in an academic burg like Boston. He's basically Dean's-List catnip, so any local Hamelin concert is automatically an event, particularly when its program includes a rarity (the wildly impacted "Night Wind" sonata by Nikolai Medtner, a contemporary of Rachmaninoff), a warhorse ripe for re-investigation (Schubert's Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960), and an original work by the performer himself (Hamelin's own "Barcarolle").

So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that his Celebrity Series performance last Sunday sometimes felt like what I call "a concert for piano teachers." The kind of people who like to follow along with the score were likely fascinated (and to be fair, they make up a fraction of any classical audience), but to those of us who want to actually access the music rather than thrill to its production, Hamelin's performance proved slightly, but steadily, frustrating in spite of its brilliance. Indeed, it began to play almost as a calmly self-imposed referendum on the limits of his ability (not that we wanted to know!).

The pianist opened the program with his own "Barcarolle," which was meant, we were told, to conjure a nodding gondola in Venice, and proved an exercise in tinting impressionist color with washes of atonality. I suppose "atonal color" is a bit of an oxymoron, but Hamelin was careful to never wade too deeply into modernity - so his lapping waters never got muddy, and his effects, which included rolls and rumbles, plenty of shimmer, and the occasional splash, were beguiling, if slightly static.

Next came the rarity, Medtner's Sonata in E-minor, Op. 25, called "Night Wind" for its epigraph, a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev from 1832, which runs:

  Why do you howl, night wind?
  Why do you complain insanely?
  Your voice is strange.  What does it mean?
  Etc., etc.

Why, why, why? - you know the drill. But Medtner's musical evocation of this ancient cry can be thrilling, even if its motifs usually crack apart before they're fully realized, and even if the whole thing (it's one immense single movement) is called a "sonata" by default - what feels like sonata form quickly collapses into a mad fantasy that's capped by a recapitulation which dodges the main theme. That perversity alone suggests why it would fascinate a technician like Hamelin - and you can listen to his superb response to its challenges on Youtube (you can even follow along with the score, as below!).

Hamelin clearly understood Medtner's intents in intellectual terms, and his unbelievable technique did conjure a sense of rigid black branches rattled by unseen forces. Indeed, his playing was impeccable, almost unbelievably clean given the work's demands. But the pianist also seemed distant from the storm he was summoning, and impervious to questions of pity and terror; this was how Jove might see thunderbolts, not how Medtner saw them.

The same issues subtly stalked the Schubert sonata, which almost too obviously set up an artistic crossroads for this particular pianist, as its interpretation hinges on an embedded technical question. The famous opening movement ("Molto moderato") sings along in B flat before pausing (to repeated rumbles that recalled both "Night Wind" and "Barcarolle") to ruminate between major and minor keys, the warm G-flat and the haunted F-sharp - which share the same physical starting point on the piano (G-flat and F-sharp are both sounded by the same black key).

What happens at this juncture, of course, demands major interpretive decisions from the pianist - which key, and which mood, will take over? Or what should be their balance - and what should that balance mean? These questions in turn hinge on artistic identification - but Hamelin once more held himself aloof; beautifully aloof, but aloof. He seemed to ponder and re-ponder the question before him, as if simply repeating it could count as its answer.

Perhaps he felt the austerely stricken second movement counts as the composer's own response, but even here you couldn't say Hamelin's reading was touched with real emotion. Which only made Schubert's return to classical form - in a light, palate-cleansing Scherzo - seem stranger than usual, while the final Allegro-gliding-into-Presto came off as another non sequitur.  The whole thing was gorgeous but simply opaque.

The crowd didn't seem to mind, though, and in the encores, Hamelin came back to what he and his technique do best - Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, a ravishing piece of rippling shimmer, and Paul de Schlözer's Étude in A-flat Major, a fierce little finger-cracker built of rapid-fire scale work that rises and falls in an evanescent whisper, like a series of Escher staircases. Hamelin tossed both showpieces off, and both stunned the crowd. And as the house rose again to its feet, I heard all around me: "He saved the best for last." I had to agree - sometimes technique alone is more than enough.

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