Inside the lobby of Mannes College the New School for Music, dozens of people lined the stairs leading to the school’s intimate concert space, the line stretching all the way back to a far hallway. The occasion (July 26) was another recital by Marc-André Hamelin, whose appearances in recent years have closed the International Keyboard Institute and Festival on high plateaus, drawing a serious, eager crowd for whatever he chooses to play. Inside the hall, one noticed the wisps of charged conversation, pairs of piano students comparing notes, discriminating fans sliding their chairs an inch or two left or right to refine the viewing angle—Hamelin’s recitals are events.
Given his bent for the unusual, the menu this time took few chances. Yet the pianist found good reasons to renew acquaintance with old friends, starting with C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in E minor, Wq. 59, No. 1, H.28, which loped along like an easygoing hound. After the second movement (little more than a bridge between the outer ones) the Andantino was slower than one might expect, with a delightfully abrupt ending that caused a shimmer of laughter before the applause. For some the highlight was the Janáček, seven of the thirteen pieces from On an Overgrown Path. Chosen from the first book, Hamelin’s set began with the homey “Our evenings” and the gusts of “A windblown leaf,” ending with the peacefulness of “Good night.” One friend thought these were the best of the night, and was struck by the pianist’s honesty in transmitting the composer’s unique cadences.
It could be argued, however, that
the greatest transcendence came at the close of the first half, with the first
book of Debussy’s Images. The heartbreaking surge-and-retreat of “Reflets dans l’eau” was precise
beyond all expectations, and Hamelin’s ability to control and sustain dynamic
shadings was at its peak in “Hommage à Rameau.” During the final “Mouvement” I
wrote in my notes, “One sits in meditative bliss, entranced, as all that is
unimportant fades into the background, the horizon growing ever fainter.”
Even the Brahms Third Sonata that
followed seemed to carry the crowd into a different realm. Using a huge sound,
Hamelin sculpted a narrative—a craggy landscape—and after the peaks and valleys
of the first movement, the second (“Andante espressivo”) came like a flashback,
as if telling the story of a swashbuckler’s early life. The third movement had
both swagger and twinkle—including a galumphing barroom waltz—perhaps the
protagonist’s stormy teens. In the “Intermezzo,” some of the opening returned,
before the finale, with its dazzling thickets bringing the journey to its
close. Only then, did the quiet, rapt audience begin applauding.
Looking a bit weary, Hamelin nevertheless obliged with two encores, starting with a mellow Rachmaninoff G-Sharp Minor Prelude. But the prize went to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” with Hamelin’s own uproarious “wrong-note” refinement. When the familiar main theme returned, after the interlude, it did so with (apparently) each note of the right-hand melody welded to one of its half-step neighbors—whether up or down, I couldn’t quite tell. Hilarity aside, I can’t imagine the difficulties involved in learning the piece with all these new skin grafts, but Hamelin is an unusual—not to mention entertaining—surgeon.
[Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke]