But if the Fantasia was grand and imposing, the Fugue began with a delicate, almost understated, simplicity. And with this study in contrasts, Hamelin signaled his modus operandi for the evening: his playing would be virtuosic when it needed to be, but it would be many other things as well. Those other things were sweet, solemn, effervescent, shimmering, subtle, quirky, and much else. Yet there was also a consistent foundation to his playing: a clarity of foreground that illuminated a path for the listener, no matter how complex the music became.
For me, the highlight of evening was Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The opening “Ondine” was fresh and sparkling, “Le Gibet” was spun out in a long line, with just enough tension to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. And “Scarbo” was mercurial, shot through with flashes of insightful irony. This was astonishing playing.
Much like Leopold Godowski, Nicolai Medtner and other great pianists of bygone years, Hamelin proudly considers himself a pianist-composer. His fondness for his heroes and the sort of things they wrote is often the inspiration for his own compositions – and his Variations on a Theme by Paganini (the next item on his program) is no exception. It’s a clever piece, written in a generic 20th-century style: full of “wrong notes,” dense chord-clusters, and even a crazy little quote from Beethoven. By the end, Paganini’s tune is but a distant memory.
Hamelin chose Rachmaninoff (another one of his piano heroes) to finish his program. Evidently, he is fonder of Rachmaninoff`s Piano Sonata No. 2 than I am – but his attempts to beat this big chunk of music into some kind of shape were not entirely successful. He brought the full weight of his virtuosic prowess to bear on the piece, and this led to a forced, rather than convincing, interpretation.
However, both the Prelude in G Major and the Prelude in G-Sharp Minor from Op. 32 (which preceded the sonata) went very well, with Hamelin’s generous pedaling producing lush and sensual effects.
All that Hamelin did in this recital he accomplished with a calm authority and a rock-solid technique. It was as if he set out to demonstrate that there’s no contradiction between the controlled execution of a carefully prepared plan and authentic depth of feeling. And I believe he’s right about that.
© Colin Eatock 2013