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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin to start Tuesday's Music Toronto recital with Golden Age Bach transcription

By John Terauds on January 21, 2013

(Fran Kaufman photo)
(Fran Kaufman photo)

Canadian ex-pat Marc-André Hamelin is one of our few windows onto what music historians call the Golden Age of piano performance — the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

It’s not that pianists of the time played better. From a technical point of view, we may be living in better than golden times. Rather, what pianists played in concert embodied all of music — from popular songs to opera to symphonies to the great works for other solo instruments.

It was a time when every middle-class household owned a piano. And like the gastro-porn we now watch every day on the Food Network, thousands of amateur pianists drooled over music they could only ever fantasize about playing.

Many of the great pianists wrote their own transcriptions as well as compositions. We all know of the great star that heralded the Golden Age of the piano, Franz Liszt. But we have forgotten so many of thegreats who came after. Silenced by the advent of the grammophone and profound social change, they live on only in history and legend.

One of their favourite transcription subjects was the music of J.S. Bach, which presents all sorts of glorious structure and dramatic possibility. The modern piano came along a bit more than a century after Bach’s time, so even the German’s keyboard music was open for reinterpretation and re-imagining.

Hamelin, considered one of the world’s finest pianists, is an avid collector of piano scores from the Golden Age. Rather than merely placing this printed music inside glass cases, Hamelin has been doing his best to remind the world of this bigger-than-life music. “I have an affinity for these,” he says of  Bach organ transcriptions in particular.

The now Boston-based pianist is in Toronto on Tuesday for a juicy recital for Music Toronto at the Jane Mallett Theatre.

The first piece on the programme is J.S. Bach’s G minor Fantasia and Fugue for organ, BWV 542, as reimagined by Hungarian pianist Theodor (Tivadar) Szántó (1877-1934).

“Sometimes it’s interesting to give a period flavor, you know,” says Hamelin of starting his recital with a piece that uses every possibility of a pianist’s 10 fingers and the instrument’s 88 keys to provide the sense of sonic grandeur that one would hear from a pipe organ.

“There is a very, very large world of Bach arrangements for the piano. It is much, much larger than even pianists ever realise,” Hamelin explains. “If pianists were to look into what’s available, they would be shocked.”

In fact, aeven  quick check of Bach Cantatas, the go-to-website for all things Bach, reveals many hundreds of possibilities. The Canadian happens to enjoy Szántó’s over-the-top approach very much.

“The writing is very fulsome,” says Hamelin of the great clusters of chords and arpeggiations that underpin the music. The pianist explains how Szántó was a student of Ferrucio Busoni, whose many Bach transcriptions were popular through the first half of the 20th century. “He tried to continue what Busoni started,” Hamelin continues — picking pieces Busoni had not touched.

The pieces are pianistic, meaning that they allow a virtuoso to show off not only a prodigious technique, but also the ability to tell a dramatic narrative with just 10 fingers and a couple of hours of our time.

“Some people object to Bach being clothed in that kind of garb, but I think there is very much a place for these things,” says the pianist.

In fact, now may be a particularly fine time for the world to rediscover this music.

British pianist Stephen Hough — who shares the same English music label, Hyperion, with Hamelin — included Bach transcriptions by legendary French pianist Alfred Cortot (born the same year as Szántó, and who died in 1962) in his wonderful recent French Album.

Hamelin whose CD count is approaching four-dozen, says he is seriously considering Hyperion ‘s invitation to add an album of Bach transcriptions to its ongoing series. And there are many younger pianists who are seeing these virtuosic transcriptions as a way to stand out in a world awash in recordings of Beethoven and Chopin.

“I’m all for diversity, as long as it doesn’t lapse into tastelessness,” says Hamelin.

Speaking of diversity, the master’s Toronto programme includes music very different from the Bach: two pieces by Gabriel Fauré, Gaspard de la nuit by Maurice Ravel, two Preludes and the grand Sonata No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov and, in another nod to the Golden Age, one of Hamelin’s own creations, Variations on a theme by Paganini, from 2011.

You can find all the details here.

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To get an idea of the before-and-after of Bach’s G minor Fantasia and Fugue, here is organist François Olivier playing the piece on the fabulous Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Eustache in Paris, followed by a pirate recording of Hamelin playing Szántó’s transcription at the Festival de La Roque d’Anthéron in France last summer:

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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