Pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, March 1, 2015, Koerner Hall.
Marc-André Hamelin’s piano program for his afternoon concert at Koerner Hall on March 1 began with a piece by the highly seminal but under performed composer, John Fields, without whom we would not have the nocturne.
While it may seem a bit risky to open an afternoon-nap time concert with a piece that is intended to evoke night time and dreams, it is also a good way to settle the audience; letting them know that they can relax into the state of reverie that is the destination of soothing music. Hamelin played the Andante Inedit in E Flat Major Op 64 with understated restraint, allowing the resonant bass notes to create the security above which the gauzy treble notes intermittently floated. The result was restful without being soporific.
Sleepiness was far from the pianist’s intention, as was made abundantly clear by the inclusion of two of his own compositions, the second and fourth in the program. His Pavane Variee, based on the pavane Belle qui tiens ma vie, by Thoinot Arbeau, (1519-1595) moves quickly from the original stately processional fragment into a rapid and jazzier variation and carries on from there, with blues-y tones as well as distinct, chiming door-bell notes.
Hamelin refers to the original composition as a “strikingly beautiful love song” which he finds haunting, and it is clear that it has inspired originality and virtuosity, as the piece sets technical challenges which he knows he can meet. It is not that easy, however, to find the theme of love in this music.
His other composition performed before the intermission was, Variations on a Theme by Paganini, which was as rousing as the opening Nocturne was relaxing. It included interesting rhythms, a witty cat-and-mouse keyboard frolic, and clever references to other compositions including Beethoven’s Fifth. It may be because the pianist was playing his own composition, and thus impressing the audience on two accounts, that several people rose to their feet at the end of the first half, something I’ve usually seen reserved for the end of a concert.
Between these two compositions came Claude Debussy’s Images, Book ll, L111, a set of three pieces that create a sense of place in the listener’s mind more than an emotional state. The sensual elements of breeze, vibration, currents and splash were deftly evoked, especially by Hamelin’s magical undulations, so floating it was as if he had turned the keys into silk.
The stimulation of the Variations on a Theme by Paganini as well as the range and subtlety of Hamelin’s playing in the first half, made it clear that Hamelin’s performance of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No 21 in B Flat Major, Op posth D960 would be rich, nuanced and flawless.
The 45 to 50-minute performance, which included the first repeat which is sometimes omitted, was one of optimally graduated tension, especially in the somewhat troubling first movement and extreme sensitivity in the gentleness of tone in the second movement, in which some notes were just at the vanishing point of audibility.
While the final movement, Allegro ma non troppo culminates in forceful chords of vibrant assertion, the concert did not end with intense momentum, but returned to the quieter and reflective mood which with the concert began, when Hamelin played Schubert’s Impromptu #2 Opus 142 in A flat Major.
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