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Pianist Marc-André Hamelin returns with his lush nineteenth-century aesthetic

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin
Pianist Marc-André Hamelin
courtesy of San Francisco Performances

Last night in the Nourse Theater, pianist Marc-André Hamelin gave his tenth performance under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP). One of the first articles I wrote on this site was an account of the SFP recital he gave in December of 2009, and I organized the piece around a discussion of his understanding of the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. At that concert this was most evident in his approach to a four-movement composition that Charles-Valentin Alkan called a “symphony” for solo piano, which was actually four consecutive etudes from his Opus 39 collection. I then went on to suggest that his approach could find equal validity in earlier music, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 310 sonata in A minor, composed in 1777.

This extension of a “period” aesthetic into “other periods” was very much on display in the program that Hamelin prepared for last night’s recital. At the heart of this program was Nikolai Medtner’s seventh piano sonata, Opus 25, Number 2 in E minor. Medtner composed this piece in 1911 and dedicated it to Sergei Rachmaninoff, with whom he had only recently formed a friendship. Rachmaninoff, in turn, became a great champion of Medtner’s work, as he had already become for Alexander Scriabin. Note that, in spite of the year, both Medtner and Rachmaninoff maintained aesthetic values that were firmly rooted in the late nineteenth century of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Like Alkan’s “symphony,” Medtner’s sonata is a massive undertaking, with a duration on the order of half an hour. Furthermore, while the piece is structured into two major sections, each of which involves episodes delineated by changes in tempo, the entire work is played without interruption. In the published edition, the opening measures are preceded by the full text of a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, whose first line translates as, “Oh what do you howl, night wind …?” Nevertheless, the music is not depictive, as one might expect from a tone poem; and, while there is a considerable range of dynamics across the score, one would be hard pressed to call any of it howling.

The score is extremely demanding on the pianist (which Rachmaninoff probably relished); and it also runs the risk of being more than a little opaque to the listener, particularly any listener encountering it for the first time. It was clear that, like Rachmaninoff, Hamelin had taken great pleasure in preparing this unfamiliar composition for performance; but it is less clear how much of that pleasure spilled off the stage and into the audience area. There was no problem with admiring Hamelin’s technical skills, but it was more difficult to appreciate whether or not his expressiveness involved much more than bluster. The result was a listening experience that often felt more like an endurance test with little sense that Hamelin was there to guide the listener through an ambitious journey.

Medtner’s sonata was complemented, following the intermission, with a performance of Franz Schubert’s D. 935 set of four impromptus. These pieces come from the final year of Schubert’s life, a time when the massiveness of his productivity was matched by the imaginativeness of his invention. Ironically, they were not published until over ten years after the composer’s death; but they definitely deserve to be numbered among his finest works.

As was the case with his performance of Mozart in 2009, Hamelin chose to approach these four pieces, each of a moderately healthy length, with the same aesthetic he had brought to the Medtner sonata. However, while Mozart’s thematic and harmonic material can find a valid voice in the expressiveness of the late nineteenth century, Schubert’s impromptus depend more on their intricacy of structure and the ways in which both melody and harmony often emerge from a delicate texture of embellishments. When that delicacy is disrupted by the more aggressive rhetoric that passed from Tchaikovsky through Scriabin to Rachmaninoff and Medtner, the whole logic behind Schubert’s approach to composition falls like a house of cards. The result was that Hamelin offered up an impressive display of pianism (again); but there was little of Schubert to be found in all of that display.

Far more interesting was Hamelin’s “forward pass” of his aesthetic preferences. The program began with a barcarolle of his own composition. This was a relatively short piece with a strong sense of impressionism. However, that impressionism was realized through the same sort of elaborate pianism that would then emerge (at much greater length) in the performance of the Medtner sonata. Hamelin thus engaged his own logic of composition in the “immediate present” to prepare the listener for the abundance of late-nineteenth-century tropes that were about to follow.

Those tropes then continued in Hamelin’s first encore, “The Gardens of Buitenzorg,” one of the twelve pieces in Leopold Godowsky’s Java Suite. Godowsky completed this music in 1925 after having travelled to Java and having been overwhelmed by the experience. Like Rachmaninoff, however, Godowsky had a heart that had never left the Europe of the late nineteenth century. As a result, one could appreciate that his approach to documenting his impressions through music may have impacted Hamelin’s impressionistic approach to Venice in his own barcarolle.

Hamelin then revealed a second approach to impressions in his second encore. This was an “arrangement” (note the scare quotes) of Frédéric Chopin’s “Minute” waltz in D-flat major (Opus 64, Number 1). This began as a relatively straightforward account, which sustained a major breakdown with the return of the opening theme. Those who remember Paul Weston’s alter ego, the pianist Jonathan Edwards (who never met a technical challenge that did not get the better of him), could easily recognize the spirit behind Hamelin’s encore; and, given the intensity of the program, it was rather nice to end the evening with a hearty belly-laugh.