The Thinking Virtuoso Pianists play in New York, Part I: Hamelin and Hough

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Marc-André Hamelin. Photo Fran Kaufman.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo Fran Kaufman.

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
92nd Street Y
January 30, 2013

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (arr. Theodor Szantó)

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Sonatina seconda

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Images, Book I

Reflets dans l’eau
Hommage à Rameau

L’isle joyeuse

Marc-André Hamelin (b. 1961)
Variations on a Theme by Paganini (New York premiere)

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5
Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12
Sonata No. 2, Op. 36

Allegro agitato—Meno mosso Non allegro—Lento
L’istesso tempo—Allegro molto

There was a time when the virtuosity of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed on the wane. Vladimir Horowitz was perhaps the one who ushered it out slowly, over more than one temporary withdrawal from performing and growing criticism of his magisterial approach, as it fell out of fashion. On the other hand, pianists of his generation, like Louis Kentner, and younger pianists like Alfred Brendel and Leon Fleisher, who were technically the equals of Horowitz, chose to focus on purely musical values, using their powerful techniques to bring difficult, but less pyrotechnic works to audiences, for example, the more serious Liszt, Schubert’s late sonatas, and Beethoven’s Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier,” following the decidedly unvirtuosic Artur Schnabel as their guide. There was a generation of us who grew up on Brendel, Perahia, and Lupu, who avoided virtuosic gestures. Old fashioned virtuosity gathered momentum again, as younger generations of pianists, many of them very young, from Asia, Russia, and America took to the keyboard with a cultural agenda to master it as a difficult art demanding mastery and perfection. I was astonished, about a decade ago, to hear my first group recital of competition winners, most under the age of twenty, who played the old virtuosic warhorses to perfection—and with musical understanding. In this context, the art of Horowitz seemed to be coming back. But did it ever lapse? Not really. I describe it as a concert-goer formed by the tastes of my generation, who prefer Schnabel, Fischer, and sometimes Rubenstein, to Horowitz. The young super-achievers have only brought one vein of it to the forefront.

For some years now we have been living with another generation of pianists, now at the height of their careers, who in many cases outstrip Horowitz’s abilities and approach their own virtuosity with a specific mentality of their own, in most cases, sophisticated and ironic, but always putting technique to serving the musical values of what they play—and, yes, in some instances, the difficulty is part of the music, whether we call it display or not. In any case, it is not “mere” display. And some of these pianists carry technique beyond the conception of former generations. Witness the extremes of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, so vividly documented in the documentary, Pianomania. These general remarks are intended to put the qualities of a few pianists who either have or will play in New York at the moment. I am only picking our strands of an art which includes entirely different pianists, from Kristian Bezuidenhuit to David Fray.

In New York we have Jonathan Biss and Jeremy Denk to come, not to mention a visit by Maurizio Pollini. Here I shall discuss only Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough. Hamelin played in the trying, but more intimate acoustics of the 92nd Street Y and Hough in the luxuriant vastness of Carnegie Hall, also not without its challenges, which were amply apparent at the recital.

First Hamelin. He began his recital with serious grounding rather than an enticing introduction, J. S. Bach’s Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 in a heady arrangement by Theodor Szantó. This grounding was musical rather than pianistic. It certainly constituted the greatest music in the program. Hamelin produced a grand-scale reading, which suggested the scope of the organ original while remaining within the scope of the piano. The timbre was bright and full of contrast. Hamelin produced fine pianistic details without losing sight of the work’s grand churchly origins. At the very beginning of the program we had already enjoyed full musical nutrition.

From here Hamelin led us, sometimes without pause, through a sequence of Busoni, whose virtuosic Bach transcriptions for piano are well-known. The Second Sonatina begins with a pure single line of melody, as if a fugue were about to begin, but Busoni diverts into an impressionistic mode, into which Bachian fugal elements come and go, along with clear, careful contrapuntal passages in Busoni’s own manner. Hamelin found the impressionistic elements of the work sufficient to support a segue into the Debussy. “Good point,” I thought, “but perhaps a little precious, and not friendly to newcomers.” Hamelin’s playing of the Debussy was finely wrought, combining atmosphere, precise definition of the musical edges, and rich sonorities—a “compleat” Debussy for our time.

M. Hamelin’s attitude to the keyboard and music encompasses a robust sense of humor, especially rich in playful allusion. The second half of the concert began with his own Variations on a Theme by Paganini—a sophisticated and hilarious revisitation of familiar musical territory. Following Rachmaninoff’s musical allusiveness ad absurdum, he manages to cover Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and other points de repère in the standard repertory, giving us all a witty pinch towards recognizing our attachment to the familiar.

From here Hamelin proceeded into rich, full-blooded Rachmaninoff. And I should add here that the adjustments of a technician during the break, that is just before Hamelin’s Variations, gave the piano a richer, more integrated sound—not an improvement on what came before, but what the pianist desired for the second half. The Preludes were magnificent, and he presented a strong case for the Sonata, which is often criticised for formal laxity.

His encore was the Mozart sonata (C Major, K. 545) so many of us have played as one of the first steps in the gradus ad Parnassum, because “he loves it so much.”

Et bien, we didn’t all play it like that!

This was a delightfully quirky, musically sound and finely judged—actually brilliant—venture into the present-day subculture of virtuosismo.

Chopin – Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1
Chopin – Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2
Brahms – Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5
Stephen Hough – Piano Sonata No. 2, “Notturno luminoso” (NY Premiere)
Schumann – Carnaval

Love – “Das alte Lied”
Chopin – Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2

Stephen Hough has also established a reputation as an intellectual virtuoso, not only through his recordings of Liszt and other composers favored by Alfred Brendel, but through his voluminous blogging and other writing, which includes poetry and essays on subjects beyond music, such as Catholic religion and homosexuality. I have greatly admired his playing and programming in the past. I have often heard him show sensitive insight, which he most ably translated into virtuosic pianism of a high order.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen on that Monday evening at Carnegie Hall. Hough’s general strategy of playing technically difficult works at steady tempi within clearly established sections seemed cautious and rather boring in the capacious acoustics of the Stern Auditorium. His use of the pedal was excessive and consistently detracted from whatever interest his cautious interpretations aroused. There was not a single moment when he seemed to be taking a risk in his playing. Everything had been thought out and tested previously, proceeding along a steady course from section to section and safely blurred by the pedal. Colors and textures were generalized, and in general (and general is the word!) the interpretations were of an anonymous, large-scale sort, which undermined their unique qualities.

The Chopin Nocturnes which opened the concert had an overblown Lisztian quality and a lack of attention to subtle detail we so treasure in the most characteristic Chopin playing. Brahms’ ambitious early sonata fared poorly, with another uniform, loud, unthinking performance, which, with Gerhard Oppitz’s both sensitive and grand, beautifully detailed performance at Tanglewood last summer still vivid in my mind, seemed obtuse, even unconscious. It was simply a large-scale run-through of the work without any real awareness of what Brahms was trying to achieve in this astonishingly strong early work.

After the intermission, Hough played his own Piano Sonata No. 2, which was not really a musical work, but an exercise in pianistic sonority. The effects were pleasant enough on the ear and gave the composer ample opportunity to show his skill as a pianist, but there was not enough melodic imagination and harmonic story-telling to convince one that this was a genuine musical composition. It was rather a cadenza shoehorned into the form of a sonata. But of course it was lovingly played.

Schumann’s Carnaval was the best of the performances, but I have to confess an aversion to large-scale treatments of the work. What’s more, Schumann was the biggest risk-taker of all the Romantics, and Stephen Hough had everything tidily worked out in advance. Think of Cortot and Gieseking, who created such intimacy, spontaneity, and such a feeling of being on the edge in the work.

Stephen Hough’s virtuosity was dull stuff. I had a feeling he knew it didn’t go well, in spite of the loud applause by his many fans.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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