Lis­ten Up

James Keller re­views con­certs by pi­anist Marc-An­dré Hamelin

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One senses an evo­lu­tion in Hamelin’s mu­si­cal as­pi­ra­tions, and at this point he gives the im­pres­sion of be­ing more deeply in­vested in clas­sics whose in­tel­lec­tual con­tent is not up­staged by whiz-bang.

IT is not com­mon for mu­si­cians to rein­vent them­selves while their ca­reers are in full swing, but on the oc­ca­sions when that does oc­cur, the re­sults can be fas­ci­nat­ing. The thought crossed my mind in late July when Todd Levy and the Miró Quar­tet per­formed Brahms’ Clar­inet Quin­tet at a con­cert of the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val. In the spring of 1891, the fifty-eight-year-old Johannes Brahms, who had pro­claimed him­self re­tired from com­po­si­tion, trav­eled from his home in Vi­enna to the Ger­man town of Meinin­gen to at­tend con­certs fea­tur­ing his mu­sic. He was so smit­ten by the play­ing of the thirty-five-year-old Richard Mühlfeld, the prin­ci­pal clar­inetist there, that his cre­ative juices started flow­ing again. Be­fore the year was out, Brahms com­pleted his Clar­inet Trio (Op. 114) and then his Clar­inet Quin­tet (Op. 115), and those ush­ered in the fur­ther ir­re­place­able mas­ter­pieces of his six fi­nal years: his four late col­lec­tions of pi­ano move­ments (Op. 116-119), his Two Clar­inet Sonatas (Op. 120, also for Mühlfeld), his Four Se­ri­ous Songs (Op. 121), and his Eleven Cho­rale Pre­ludes for Or­gan (Op. 122).

None of these pieces would likely have come into be­ing with­out the jump­start Mühlfeld hap­pened to have pro­vided, but here’s the kicker: Mühlfeld was only a clar­inetist be­cause he rein­vented him­self. By train­ing, he was a vi­o­lin­ist. He had joined the Meinin­gen Or­ches­tra in 1873 as a sec­ond vi­o­lin­ist and was pro­moted to the first vi­o­lin sec­tion the fol­low­ing year. Wag­ner re­cruited him to play as an or­ches­tral vi­o­lin­ist for the inau­gu­ral sea­son of the Bayreuth Fes­ti­val in 1876, in which was in­tro­duced Der Ring

des Ni­belun­gen, and only af­ter that did Mühlfeld turn his at­ten­tion se­ri­ously to­ward the clar­inet. If he had not reeval­u­ated his mu­si­cal as­pi­ra­tions and moved from the Meinin­gen Or­ches­tra’s string sec­tion to its wind con­tin­gent, Brahms’ cat­a­log would prob­a­bly have ended be­fore those fi­nal nine opus num­bers. Change can lead to good things.

History does not of­fer up many shifts as com­plete and unan­tic­i­pated as Mühlfeld’s, although there are nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of in­stru­men­tal­ists who be­come con­duc­tors or who find their true call­ing in com­po­si­tion. Singers are more likely to change their fo­cus than in­stru­men­tal­ists are. Mezzo-so­pra­nos be­come so­pra­nos, tenors turn into bari­tones. Even with­out re­lo­cat­ing from one pitch cat­e­gory to another, most singers move from singing one type of role to another within their gen­eral vo­cal cat­e­gory as their ca­reers progress. Voices are evolv­ing or­gan­isms, af­ter all. This sea­son at Santa Fe Opera, for ex­am­ple, we have tenor Alek Shrader star­ring in the up­per-range tenore

di grazia role of To­nio in La fille du rég­i­ment, but it sounds like he is al­ready em­barked on a tech­ni­cal tran­si­tion that will land him in rather heav­ier tenor roles. And con­sider this sum­mer’s Salome, so­prano Alex Penda, who has been spend­ing re­cent weeks let­ting loose a very siz­able voice that has no trou­ble blaz­ing through the den­sity of a big Straus­sian or­ches­tra. It is sur­pris­ing to re­call that she pre­vi­ously gained promi­nence through her work in the dain­tier field of his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance, that she spent the first decade of her ca­reer singing mostly 18th-cen­tury mu­sic, and that as re­cently as Septem­ber 2011 she recorded the part of Ar­minda in Mozart’s La finta giar­diniera with the Freiburg Baroque Or­ches­tra. Any­one who has caught both La

finta giar­diniera and Salome at Santa Fe Opera this sum­mer will un­der­stand that a singer would not move from the one part to the other with­out un­der­go­ing se­ri­ous re­think­ing of her mu­si­cal as­pi­ra­tions and con­comi­tant vo­cal re­tool­ing.

Pi­anist Marc-An­dré Hamelin would seem to be go­ing through a re­lated process of self-rein­ven­tion. Af­ter he won the Carnegie Hall In­ter­na­tional Amer­i­can Mu­sic Com­pe­ti­tion in 1985, he set up shop in a sparsely in­hab­ited niche by pro­gram­ming and record­ing reper­toire we might call ul­tra-vir­tu­osic. Much of it was by com­posers who were also tech­ni­cally high-fly­ing pi­anists, such as Leopold Godowsky, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Fer­ruc­cio Bu­soni, Percy Grainger, Niko­lai Medt­ner, Josef Hof­mann, and Felix Blu­men­feld. By 2002, he was a fo­cus of a book, Robert Rimm’s The Com­poser-Pi­anists: Hamelin and The Eight, which cast him as the mod­ern-day coun­ter­part to a se­lect group of golden-age pi­anis­tic sen­su­al­ists — Alkan, Bu­soni, Sa­muil Fein­berg, Godowsky, Medt­ner, Sergei Rach­mani­nov, Alexan­der Scri­abin, and Kaikhosru Sorabji. It is in­ter­est­ing to look through the more re­cent years of Hamelin’s vo­lu­mi­nous recorded cat­a­log, which is mostly re­leased on the Hyperion la­bel. In 2005, we find a col­lec­tion of three Schu­mann cy­cles, in­clud­ing Pa­pil­lons and

Car­naval — not easy mu­sic, to be sure, but not out of the park in its ba­sic phys­i­cal de­mands. In 2006, we find Brahms’ three pi­ano quar­tets plus one of the late solo sets (Op. 117); in 2007, a two-CD set of Haydn pi­ano sonatas, with se­quel sets fol­low­ing in 2009 and 2012; in 2009, the Schu­mann Pi­ano Quin­tet with the Tákacs Quar­tet; a Chopin disc in 2009; three Haydn pi­ano con­cer­tos in 2013; a two-CD set of Mozart pi­ano sonatas this past April.

Such reper­toire is more gen­er­ally at­tain­able on a tech­ni­cal level than the fin­ger-twist­ing ma­te­rial with which Hamelin staked his stage cred. We should note that he con­tin­ues to per­form and record reper­toire that ex­ists largely to daz­zle, and that his ear­lier in-con­cert recitals of­ten did in­clude a good deal of stan­dard reper­toire along with the barn­storm­ing.

One al­most felt the piece was be­ing cre­ated as we sat there, that its nooks and cran­nies were be­ing ex­ca­vated for the first time, that mo­ments of re­pose were es­sen­tial stops in this flow of in­spi­ra­tion.

Still, one senses an evo­lu­tion in his mu­si­cal as­pi­ra­tions, and at this point he gives the im­pres­sion of be­ing more deeply in­vested in clas­sics whose in­tel­lec­tual con­tent is not up­staged by whiz-bang. No mat­ter where his heart may have lain all along, he has seemed in­tent on re­cal­i­brat­ing his im­age. We have seen it even here in Santa Fe, where this past March he ap­peared at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter with Les Vi­olons du Roy play­ing not Liszt or Rach­mani­noff, but rather two pieces that prac­ti­cally de­fine Clas­si­cal bal­ance, Haydn’s D-ma­jor Con­certo and Mozart’s Con­cert-Rondo in A ma­jor (K. 386).

On July 30, his noon­time solo recital at the St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium (pre­sented by the Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val) was an­chored by an en­tranc­ing ren­di­tion of Schu­bert’s Pi­ano Sonata in B-flat ma­jor (D. 960), that com­poser’s last con­tri­bu­tion to the genre. It was very much an in­ter­pre­ta­tion, a per­son­al­ized take on a fa­mil­iar stan­dard. The most ob­vi­ous sur­prises in­volved his ap­proach to rhythm. He played the piece in a ru­mi­na­tive fash­ion, of­ten round­ing off phrases by slow­ing down into a pause be­fore con­tin­u­ing. This might easily have made a long piece seem too, too pro­tracted, but in his hands it had the op­po­site ef­fect; one al­most felt the piece was be­ing cre­ated as we sat there, that its nooks and cran­nies were be­ing ex­ca­vated for the first time, that mo­ments of re­pose were es­sen­tial stops in this flow of in­spi­ra­tion. Hamelin’s rhyth­mic lib­er­ties seemed in­te­gral rather than will­fully au­da­cious. It was, in fact, an un­usu­ally slow per­for­mance, es­pe­cially in the open­ing two move­ments. The first move­ment, for ex­am­ple, usu­ally runs about 20 min­utes; here it clocked in at 23. Re­mark­able, too, was Hamelin’s tone. Even when play­ing his most flam­boy­ant reper­toire, he has never been drawn to bang­ing. In Schu­bert, the light­ness of his touch eerily evoked the tim­bre of Schu­bert-era pi­anos, even though he was play­ing a mas­sive mod­ern Stein­way. His per­for­mance seemed an­cient and mod­ern both at once. The An­dante sostenuto be­came a play of color re­fracted through his pi­anis­tic prism. He did not draw away from out­burst when it seemed nec­es­sary, strongly em­pha­siz­ing the tolling of some re­peated notes in the Trio of the third move­ment and truly erupt­ing at one point in the fi­nale, but on the whole this was a med­i­ta­tive, un­usu­ally im­me­di­ate per­for­mance that em­anated from a quiet place.

An un­fa­mil­iar piece pre­ceded the sonata: Ye­hudi Wyner’s To­ward the Cen­ter, from 1988. Here Hamelin’s hy­per-clar­ity yielded sparkling shards of pi­anis­tic hues. The piece had a gen­er­ally atonal fla­vor, but at its cen­ter a melody en­riched by ap­pog­giat­uras made al­lu­sions to the ar­dent ex­pres­sions of an ear­lier time, rather like slow-mo­tion Chopin. At the end of its 17 min­utes, clus­tery chords floated off into the cos­mos.

The pi­anist re­turned to the same stage on Aug. 2 and 3 — I heard the for­mer — in a con­cert he shared with the Johannes String Quar­tet (also pre­sented by the Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val). The four­some opened the con­cert with a bristling read­ing of Men­delssohn’s Quar­tet in F mi­nor, the last of his six, writ­ten in the af­ter­math of his sis­ter’s sud­den death and only months be­fore his own. The Johannes tilts its bal­ance to­ward the first vi­o­lin, which in this piece added to the in­ten­sity of the drama. The group showed in­her­ent mas­tery of the fun­da­men­tals we ex­pect of a good quar­tet; its rhyth­mic point­ed­ness honed the ur­gent sec­ond move­ment to a fine edge, and one could only ad­mire the el­e­gantly matched oc­taves the vi­ola and cello whis­pered in per­fect ensem­ble in that move­ment’s Trio sec­tion. The third move­ment, an Ada­gio, is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally de­scribed as a “song with­out words,” but that fails to sug­gest the poignancy it can con­vey in this con­text. The group plumbed its ten­der melan­choly with­out giv­ing in to sac­cha­rine pos­si­bil­i­ties, notwith­stand­ing a few gen­er­ous touches of ex­pres­sive por­ta­mento.

Hamelin then joined forces with them for a jaw­drop­ping per­for­mance of Leo Orn­stein’s Pi­ano Quin­tet — or Quin­tette, as the com­poser pre­ferred to spell it. The work is rarely en­coun­tered, and you can see why. Apart from re­quir­ing a very high or­der of vir­tu­os­ity from all five play­ers, it is a be­he­moth of a piece, its three move­ments ex­tend­ing through some 40 jam-packed min­utes. Orn­stein, who was born in ei­ther 1892 or 1893 (as with many other Eastern Euro­pean im­mi­grants to Amer­ica at that time, records are sketchy), achieved em­i­nence as a rav­ing mod­ernist dur­ing the 1910s, crash­ing about the key­board and com­pos­ing works with ti­tles like Wild Men’s Dance (Danse sau­vage) and Sui­cide in an Air­plane. He largely with­drew from the con­cert stage in the 1920s, de­vot­ing him­self in­stead to teach­ing pi­ano in Philadelphia and com­pos­ing pieces that, on the whole, grew more con­ser­va­tive than his early brash­ness might have fore­told. He lived un­til 2002, when he died at the age of one hun­dred and eight or one hun­dred and nine. Nearly all his com­po­si­tions date from be­fore the Sec­ond World War, but he did write a few pieces in his later years, ap­par­ently com­plet­ing his last — his Pi­ano Sonata No. 8 — in 1990.

The Pi­ano Quin­tet, from 1927, is a fe­ro­cious, mad­cap piece over­all, wend­ing its way through a smor­gas­bord of Bartók’s per­cus­sive­ness, Ravel’s sweep­ing sen­su­al­ity, Scri­abin’s per­fer­vid pas­sion, Mil­haud’s jun­gle ex­oti­cism, Bloch’s He­braic can­til­la­tion, Prokofiev’s ma­chine-age mo­men­tum, and even a lyric sweep that sug­gests Korn­gold’s fu­ture Hol­ly­wood scores. The piece might prove laugh­able in a per­for­mance that was less com­mit­ted than this one. Here, Hamelin’s wrists of steel came in very use­ful; he made Orn­stein’s ter­ri­fy­ing pi­ano writ­ing sound down­right artis­tic, even in scin­til­lat­ing pas­sages that seemed left over from Balakirev’s daunt­ing Is­lamey. The string play­ers matched him point for point in energy, en­thu­si­asm, and un­flap­pa­bil­ity. A cor­nu­copia of ma­te­rial spilled forth with out­ra­geous abun­dance, and lis­ten­ers were left with no choice but to go with the flow of this rhap­sodic ef­fu­sion and just try to keep up with it all.

Marc-An­dré Hamelin

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