In Maine music, 2013 seems to have been the year of the piano. Looking back over memorable performances, most involved that venerable instrument, which is making a comeback after the end of the virtuoso star system. Today’s pianists are ahead of the Romantics in technique, and re-interpreting the classics from a more intellectual viewpoint.

Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen – there is something to be said for a pianist having a breadth of experience, say as prime minister, like Paderewski – but the examples heard here in Maine were encouraging, revealing musical depths sometimes lost in the heat of passion.

And – dare I say it? – this generation seems to take itself a little less seriously. Practicing the piano, as Glenn Gould observed – “Anyone can learn to play in half an hour.” – is not a religion, and sometimes less is more.

Actually, the year of the piano began in November 2012, with the first celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Dual pianists Soyeon Kate Lee and Ran Dank played the piano-four hands version of “Rite of Spring,” with which the composer introduced his new work to friends with Claude Debussy beside him on the bench.

“Rite” was a revelation on the piano, bringing out all manner of subtle effects never heard in the orchestral version. For example the extremely gradual progression of a melody through and under a multitude of repeated chords showed where Philip Glass got the idea.

Even the brutality was more brutal, since the sudden sforzandos and dissonances stood out more than they do in the orchestral version. The whole affair made me wonder if the composer’s practice score for a ballet might not be closer to his thought than the orchestral version.

Then came pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, who led off a spectacular program with, of all things, Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which sounded positively lyrical. An early work, Berg’s 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.

Hamelin also played his own version of the popular “Variations on a Theme by Paganinni,” which seemed to me a parody of typical virtuoso fare, with portions of two of Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes” played on top of one another. If he had played an encore, he said, it would have been Mozart’s childlike Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major.

Following in Hamelin’s self-effacing footsteps was a tour de force by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Maine pianist Martin Perry in a performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38, which makes the Rachmaninoff Third sound like a five-finger exercise. The original version was too difficult for Vladimir Horowitz, but Perry turned it into music

Finally, there was an awe-inspiring performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major Op. 58, by the PSO and Orli Shaham, who demonstrated that there is another way of “singing” on the piano – trills and passage work so rapid and even that the result is a sustained tone rather than individual notes.

The first movement was so exciting that there was a smattering of applause instead of the usual respectful silence. The pianist turned on the bench, smiled and said, “If anyone would like to applaud…,” and everyone complied. I can’t imagine Horowitz doing that.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at:

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