Portland Ovations delayed the appearance of pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin for a week so that he could participate in a celebration of the life and works of American composer John Cage (1912-1992) with Jessye Norman and Michael Tilson Thomas in Miami.
If his performance Saturday at Merrill Auditorium is any indication, the Miami audience must have lined up to buy CDs and sheet music by a composer best known for his 4’33″ (of silence).
Hamelin made the first work on the program, Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata No. 1, sound positively lyrical. An early work, his only one for the piano, it actually has a key signature, but foreshadows the later atonal and serial works in its chromaticism and harmonic instability.
Listeners could easily follow the themes and their development in traditional sonata form, but under Hamelin’s fingers the music also had considerable emotional depth.
It might seem the height of chutzpah to lead off a recital with a work by one of Schoenberg’s star pupils, but Hamelin seems able to pull off just about anything. The rest of the program consisted of brilliant late-Romantic works, all of which were played with an almost surreal technique, devoid of flourishes or histrionics, but full of meaning, delicacy … and power. Hamelin can fill the auditorium with sound while never lifting a hand above the keyboard.
Two pieces by Gabriel Faure, the Impromptu No. 2 in F minor (Opus 31) and the Barcarolle No. 3 in G-flat major (Opus 42), heavily embellished echoes of Chopin, demonstrated Hamelin’s incredible passage work, as rapid as a glissando, but with every note distinct and the musical line perfectly modulated.
That ability was even more powerfully demonstrated in a near-definitive performance of Ravel’s fiendishly difficult “Gaspard de la Nuit” (1908). Even better than the keyboard technique was the ability to evoke atmosphere and character — a shimmering and seductive water nymph, a corpse swinging on a gibbet, or a mischievous, busy and evil spirit in the garden.
Hamelin is also a composer and has created a characteristic piece that only he can play, “Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” which light-heartedly parodies characteristics of both composers and virtuosi. You haven’t lived until you have heard Liszt’s “La Campanella” played with one hand and the Paganini Caprice No. 24 with the other.
The final works on the program were by Rachmaninoff: the Preludes in G major and G-sharp minor (No. 5 and No. 12 from Opus 32), and the Sonata No. 2, Opus 36.
Perhaps it was the difference between live and recorded performances (I’ll have to listen again) but Hamelin’s readings seemed more revelatory to me than the recordings by Horowitz or the composer himself.
In spite of a prolonged standing ovation, Hamelin did not play an encore, which might have been an anti-climax after the Rachmaninoff. He said later that if he had played one it would have been the first movement of the Mozart Sonata in C, known to piano students the world over, but still quite beautiful. He has recorded the Haydn piano sonatas and is now looking through the Mozart works in the same form.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: