Marc-André Hamelin at Jane Mallett Theatre St. Lawrence Centre, Tuesday, Oct. 2.
Marc-André Hamelin is on good terms with Music Toronto, whose subscribers willingly hear the unusual repertoire this famous Canadian pianist habitually carries in his luggage. On Tuesday he gave what was presumably the Jane Mallett Theatre premiere of the Piano Sonata No. 3 of Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962) — having played the first two sonatas last year.
I wish I could say I anxiously await a cycle of all 12. This Russian composer was influenced by Scriabin but lacked the earlier master’s capacity to focus his energy and navigate with authority from key to key. As promising as the opaque offbeats seemed at the start, they barely sustained the opening movement of only four minutes. The descending gruppettos of the not-very-martial Funeral March became clichés before this movement was done.
Most challenging of all as a listening experience was the sprawling finale, a sonata in its own right that exceeded the 13 minutes predicted in the (excellent) program notes. There was a fugue in the middle and a ghostly passage of semiquavers in octaves, both executed with admirable precision. Indeed, the entire performance could be characterized as a labour of Hercules except insofar as it did not sound in the slightest laborious. How can anybody memorize this stuff?
Perhaps one misjudgement was to program the prolix Feinberg after a top-10 masterpiece, Bach’s Chaconne in the popular Busoni transcription. Severe at the start, Hamelin impressively judged the contrasts of this great work, ranging from quiet soliloquy in the right hand to fortissimo thunder in the left (including the very lowest note of the keyboard). Perhaps the sound of the Steinway is magnified, acoustically or psycho-acoustically, by that shiny new stage floor.
We were back in esoteric territory after intermission with arrangements of six songs by the much-admired French crooner Charles Trenet (coincidentally after the death of Trenet’s successor, Charles Aznavour). The composer was the late pianist Alexis Weissenberg, wrongly represented by the program as still living, but the transcriber by ear (there being no published sheet music) was Hamelin himself. See “Hercules” above.
If rather extravagantly ornamented, these were charming numbers, sometimes zesty, sometimes bluesy. Hamelin played “Vous qui passez sans me voir” with a touching feeling of nostalgia. Then came still more gentle melancholy in Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi Op. 17, a long-winded fantasy of 1920 including a songful tenor line.
Hamelin got serious at the end of the program with some Chopin. There were wonders of sonority and technical finesse in the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61, but something in momentum was missing. The minor-mode trio of the Scherzo No. 4 was taken at a particularly leisurely pace, its turbulent undercurrents either overlooked or suppressed. Implacable as ever at the keyboard, the pianist seemed to be in a mellow mood.
Not that the cheers were anything less than abundant. Hamelin rewarded the crowd with the Impromptu Op. 142 No. 2 of Schubert, gently played.