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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 5 February 2009

Marc-André Hamelin: Carte Blanche

by Lucie Renaud / February 1, 2009

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It’s concert night, and in the foyer, two music lovers are discussing the top pianists on the international scene. As one of them mentions Marc-André Hamelin, the other gets excited, noting his Herculean technique, which defies the most elementary laws of physics. He speaks of obscure or arcane contemporary repertoire known only to experts. Anyone referring to the Canadian pianist in these terms however, hasn’t been following the artist’s recent evolution.

Hamelin has tirelessly attempted to break free of this “super virtuoso” label, appointed to him by a New York Times critic in 1988 and zealously promoted ever since. He does not consider himself a musical athlete at all but instead compares his work with that of a painter who, with a single line, must communicate a message, a life, an emotion. “I don’t play to take up a challenge,” he told La Scena Musicale in December of 2001. “What I want first and foremost is musical substance. People are surprised by this, but I still say it, and I’ll keep on saying it until I’m blue in the face: virtuosity doesn’t interest me.” 

Music First

The personality cults maintained by certain artists and labels irritate Hamelin, and he points out that he is not alone. “You can’t blame promoters and record companies for wanting something that works, but we should never ever forget the music,” he emphasizes on the phone from his home in Boston. “When I play at a concert, I don’t move a lot. For the general public, I don’t imagine I’m very interesting to watch. I don’t pay much attention to how I dress – I just wear normal clothes. One should go to a concert to listen and not be distracted by visual elements. Of course, the main reason we listen to music live is that the atmosphere of the hall will generally be better than that of your living room, however sophisticated your sound system is.” He believes that there are two kinds of people, “those who want to hear each note perfectly played and cannot handle one wrong note when they listen to a CD, and those who are essentially looking for the concert experience. You can’t please everyone. It’s all well and good to listen to CDs, but you have to stay in contact with the concert experience.”

For Hamelin, the interpreter will convey his own personality by doing justice to the composer. “You have to try to see things from the composer’s perspective. Would they really want the interpreter to throw a wrench in the wheels? I don’t think so. Certain composers have asserted that they quite like individuality; Grieg, among others, conceded interpretations different from those he had imagined. However, several others, Beethoven and Chopin for example, wrote their works with precise notations and many pianists totally ignore these numerous indications. I always return to the score.”

Hamelin hasn’t hesitated to approach the most terrifying pages of the repertoire, sometimes returning to them repeatedly before mastering the difficulties. He confesses that this is not the most difficult part of his job as interpreter. On October 6, 2003, he confided in host Cathy Fuller on Boston’s public radio WBGH during an interview that would impact the course of his love life. Today, he speaks of that moment with charming tenderness and romanticism. Fascinated by his perfectly calibrated playing, Fuller had referred to Hamelin’s patience with the quality of the sound. “You’re paying me perhaps the biggest compliment,” confessed the pianist, already charmed, “because when I’m asked what is the most difficult thing to play, I know what the expected answer is but really, it’s to learn to listen to yourself as if you were somebody else, as objectively and constructively as possible. When you’re hampered by the production of the sound, by your movements, it’s very difficult to maintain an objective perspective as a listener. The trick is not to listen to what you want to hear but to listen to what emerges from the instrument. I am never really satisfied with the result.” 

Hamelin Times Four

Hamelin is not simply a remarkable virtuoso with dazzling technique, but remains above all an absolute musician. He will demonstrate his musicianship during a series of four concerts presented from the 9th to the 16th of March – a grandiose gift of the Société Pro Musica of Montreal in celebration of its 60th anniversary. You will be able to appreciate his talent in four different settings when he plays solo, as part of a duo, as a chamber musician, and as a soloist with Les Violons du Roy.

His first contact with the Leipzig Quartet proved so inspirational that Hamelin did not hesitate to invite them to join this unparalleled celebration. He still speaks of it with a hint of astonishment. Three hours of rehearsal had been planned, but after 45 minutes, the members of the quartet told him they had no reservations whatsoever. The following day, at breakfast, they dared to ask him to skip the dress rehearsal. Flabbergasted, he agreed. The night of the concert, the symbiosis was such that one might have believed the five musicians had played together all their lives. In Montreal, they are playing Dvořàk’s Quintet, and Laura St. John will join them in Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, a piece that Hamelin is most fond of.

Two days later, he will join another collaborator, soprano Karina Gauvin, with whom he recorded Fête Galante, an album of French melodies praised by critics and rewarded with a 1999 Opus Award. Their hectic schedules have prevented their paths from crossing very often over the last ten years, but for just one night, piano and voice will cast off their individuality to melt into a superior creation in which non-verbal communication will play an important role.

Casting Off the Genre’s Limits

To conclude that week of challenges, the pianist offers the Montreal public an eclectic recital that includes two Haydn sonatas, a composer to whom he has dedicated a recording (a new one will soon be launched). “Why Mozart, Beethoven, and not Haydn?” he asks. “Haydn abounds with relevance, with music – he truly deserves to be played. He’s full of energy, humour, pathos; his mind is overflowing with ingenuity and a gift for melody that is quite simply marvellous. He must be taken seriously – he’s really a master.” Hamelin will follow the Haydn with the formidable Sonata in a State of Jazz by pianist Alexis Weissenberg, created in 1982 by Cyprien Katsaris. This sonata evokes by turns a sublime and nostalgic tango, a swaying Charleston, blues of uncommon harmonies and a particularly fragmented samba. (You can find the piece, as well as passages by Kapustin, Gulda and Antheil, on one of Hamelin’s recent recordings, the artist’s eighth Grammy nomination.) He will end with Chopin’s Barcarolle and Ballade No. 3 as well as the third of the flamboyant Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Johann Strauss II, “Wine, women and song”.

Hamelin will also present two of his Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, No. 8, “Erlkönig” (inspired by Goethe) and No. 7 (inspired by Tchaikovsky, a delicate lullaby written for the left hand). The cycle, started over 20 years ago and on the road to completion, will be issued by Peters. “It’s like a dream,” says Hamelin, whose first collection, Con Intimissimo Sentimento, was published by the Japanese publisher Ongaku No Tomo. While he may not wish to dedicate himself entirely to composing – “I’m a pianist who writes, not a composer,” he says – he maintains that composition should nevertheless be part of every pianist’s life. “It’s absolutely essential for me to develop as much as possible as a musician. It’s necessary to know how composers felt as they strove to write things that we will interpret, decipher.” Starting with his earliest lessons, Hamelin had been amazed by the score itself, by the work that led to its completion, and had wished create scores of his own. “No one encouraged me to do it; it came from within. The act of notating music, our thoughts, so that they will be understood as clearly as possible by the interpreter, is a nearly insurmountable undertaking, one which is sometimes agonizing.”

Finding Balance

Studio recordings remain a source of inspiration for Hamelin. Nearly 60 albums, the vast majority on the exclusive Hypérion label, have punctuated the artist’s journey since 1987. “An audience can inspire us, but we don’t necessarily need it. Marvellous things can happen, even in the studio,” Hamelin confides. He has hoped to rehabilitate the neglected works of Alkan, Busoni, Medtner and Szymanowski, while also presenting Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Albéniz and Chopin in a new light. (His recording of Chopin’s Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 has just been released)

The concert experience is too vital for Hamelin to consider slowing down his pace even for an instant, despite all the hours lost in airports. “As the years advance, with maturity, certain things are perfected and you ultimately see more clearly,” he admits, at the age of 47. “I still have more or less the same contact with the public, perhaps because I’ve never underestimated them. I always feel like they’re there, that at least some of them hope to discover something, and I hope – and it’s from this perspective that I offer my repertoire – that they will decide to follow me on this adventure. I never wish to overburden them. When I present little-known pieces, I always hope they’ll have a chance of being worthy of the modern repertoire. You can play whatever you want, it’s the way you handle the piece, the way you approach it. You have to find the balance between your own taste and that of the public.”

He believes in taking advantage of good sound quality throughout the whole world, recalling with a smile the exceptional acoustics of Japanese auditoriums and the care given to instruments, such as the  “German Steinways treated like gold.” He imagines the piano as an extension of his thoughts, a tool for transmitting them. “If there are imperfections, they harm the transmission. Each concert becomes an opportunity to translate whatever you want with greater or less success, depending on the state of the piano. Obviously, you have to get used to the piano as much as possible in order to be capable of translating what you want as faithfully as possible. Sometimes you have to make compromises, and possess an ability to adapt. And even if I could play the same instrument all the time – and there are very few of us who are so fortunate – it’s a different room. You don’t experience the sound in the same way. I’ve noticed it several times.”

In the years to come, will the name Marc-André Hamelin continue to be revered by those passionate about piano? Without a doubt. “Hamelin’s legend will grow – right now there is no one like him,” wrote Alex Ross in the New Yorker some years ago. He is “one of the most adventurous and certainly the most courageous pianists of recent times,” argued International Piano Quarterly. The pianist has recently been awarded the prestigious and rarely granted German Critics’ Record Prize for his works. Faced with praise, the musician will presumably shrug his shoulders. What is recognition when compared to art, love and small, everyday pleasures? Making the piano sing again and forever: this is the meaning of life.

[Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark]

Société Pro Musica, Sapphire series: Marc-André Hamelin, passionnément! March 9, 11, 13 and 16, Théâtre Maisonneuve. 514-842-2112, www.promusica.qc.ca

All La SCENA subscribers are automatically eligible to win the 5 most recent recordings of Marc-André Hamelin on the Hyperion label: (1) Chopin (2) In the state of jazz (3) Alkan (4) Plays Villa-Lobos (5) The composer pianist. The draw will take place on February 23.

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