As pianist and composer, Hamelin shows distinctive mastery at Rockport
Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has a sterling reputation for virtuosity, searching musicality, and wide-ranging programs that often shed light onto works not normally heard in recitals.
In the past few years he has also gained additional notoriety for his own music through a bracing array of works that bring new attention to the age-old virtuoso-composer model spearheaded by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and others.
Two of Hamelin’s pieces were part of an enriching recital Saturday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Each spotlighted his dexterity as a composer, his expressivity at the keyboard, and, of course, his virtuosity.
Hamelin’s compositional style is rooted in traditional, even romantic notions of musical tension and release, though his writing is thoroughly modern, making frequent use of disjointed melodic lines and clusters of dissonant harmonies.
In his Pavane Variée Hamelin turns an eye towards Debussy in his use of serene chordal shadings. But there are also bristly chromatic passages that scamper all over the keyboard in a manner similar to the style of Frederic Rzewski.
Hamelin, in full command of his instrument, gave a vivid performance. The theme of this variation set, a sixteenth-century Pavane attributed to Thoinot Arbeau, sounded with a deep, resonant tone. The variations grew from squirrelly meandering figures to passages of dark tonal depth. Yet Hamelin’s touch was soft and feathery and he produced a clean, shimmering tone even when called upon to perform loud and climactic passages.
Hamelin’s music also contains a great deal of humor. His Variations on a Theme of Paganini, also heard Saturday, is a barnstormer of a piece, mixing quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances,Liszt’s La campanella, as well as Latin-music clichés with Hamelin’s own gnarly reimagining of the last of Paganini’s 24 Caprices.
The theme is itself a sort of variation, raucous and hard-hitting, which Hamelin rendered with earthy force. The variations took the pianist all over the keyboard, building from a flurry of notes to a clever parody of Rachmaninoff’s famous eighteenth variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Through it all, Hamelin played with abandon.
The rest of the program featured Hamelin in a mix of beloved and little-known repertoire.
The opener, John Field’s Andante inédit in E-flat, H. 64, was tender and lyrical. Remembered today for works that explored the colorful sonorities of the piano, Field wrote in a personal and poetic style. His influence can be traced in the music of Chopin and Liszt, who admired the Irish composer’s works.
Hamelin took his time with the opening theme, which unfolded in soft phrases. The melody, floating gently over left-hand chords, moved with a graceful ebb and flow. Some of the most affecting moments could be heard mid-movement, where he shaped a singing line from Field’s characteristic filigree.
Fine and sensitive playing also characterized Hamelin’s performance of the second set of Debussy’s Images. The three works of this collection are some of Debussy’s most visually inspired music, and Hamelin brought out the images with playing of fine detail
Details, of course, are not always important in impressionism, but the bells of the opening “Cloches à travers les feullies” seemed to ring in the distance. “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” was shimmering in its wash of parallel chords and wispy sonorities. And Hamelin’s rendering of “Poissons d’or” had enough golden tone to match the fish artwork Debussy had in mind when he composed this sparkling piece.
After intermission, Hamelin offered Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935. Hamelin mined the drama and sudden shifts in mood from this music, digging in with earthy resonance and softening his tone where appropriate.
The sudden minor-key shifts in the first of the set were given just the right touch of darkness, and Hamelin showed time and again that he can shape a phrase with mastery. His lines, played with subtle rubato, came to rest on chords of quiet resonance.
The Allegretto was dreamy, though Hamelin laid on the power with a weighty left hand to add depth. The impish Scherzando moved with incisive energy.
The theme and variations of the third Impromptu were also sensitive, with Hamelin lofting the songlike theme with delicate touch. Whether in the turnabout melody of the second variation, the stormy textures of the third, or the light and nimble flourishes of the outer variations, Hamelin played it all with aplomb.
Hamelin offered two encores. The first, “Reflets dans l’eau” from Debussy’s first set of Images, returned listeners to the svelte sound worlds explored earlier in the evening, while the second, Earl Wild’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Liza, showcased the pianist in a dynamic display of both virtuosity and lyricism, aspects that define Hamelin’s style.
The next event of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will feature the Jupiter String Quartet, violist Andrés Cárdenes, cellist Anne Martindale Williams, and pianist David Deveau in music by Schubert, Brahms, and Sun Lian Tan 5 p.m. Sunday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org
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