Piano Recital: Marc-André Hamelin
C.P.E. Bach / Prokofiev / Scriabin / Beethoven
Klavierissimo Festival 2022
Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2022-02-23
2022-03-08 — Original posting
Klavierissimo Festival 2022: Marc-André Hamelin in Wetzikon — Zusammenfassung
Der franco-kanadische Pianist Marc-André Hamelin wurde von den Organisatoren des Klavierissimo-Festival 2022 in Wetzikon ZH als Supervirtuose und Weltstar angekündigt—der er zweifelsohne ist. Nicht alles in seinem Programm vermochte allerdings gleichermaßen zu überzeugen. Die einleitende Sonate (Suite) in e-moll, Wq 61/12 (H.66) von Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788) zum Beispiel erfährt heute speziell auf historischen Instrumenten weitaus adäquatere Interpretationen.
Auf der Höhe seines Könnens zeigte sich der Pianist dann allerdings bei russischen Werken des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts. Zuerst spielte Hamelin von Sergej Prokofieff (1891 – 1953) die fünf Sarkasmen, op.17, danach von Alexander Skrjabin (1872 – 1915) die Klaviersonate Nr.7, op.64, auch bekannt als “Weiße Messe“.
Weniger gelungen schienen hingegen gesamthaft die Klaviersonate Nr.29 in B-dur, op.106, die berühmte (und berüchtigte) “Hammerklaviersonate“, von Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Hier mangelte es in den raschen Sätzen an Tiefe und Sorgfalt. Anderseits erfuhr nach Ansicht des Rezensenten der langsame Satz (Adagio sostenuto) eine meisterhafte, durchgehend überzeugende Interpretation. In diesem Satz, der sehr vielen Pianisten enorme Schwierigkeiten bereitet, vermochte Hamelin den Spannungsbogen von Anfang bis Ende zu halten.
Marc-André Hamelin bedankte sich mit zwei Zugaben: dem Graceful Ghost Rag des Amerikaners William Bolcom (*1938), sowie danach—für viele eine Überraschung—eine “fortgeschrittene Etüde” von Carl Czerny (1791 – 1857): die Etüde Nr.4 aus Band I der “Kunst der Fingerfertigkeit“, op.740. Speziell letzteres was ein passender Abschluss für den Klavierabend.
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- C.P.E. Bach: Piano Sonata in E minor, Wq 62/12, H.66
- Prokofiev: Sarcasms for Piano, op.17
- Scriabin: Piano Sonata No.7, op.64, Messe blanche (White Mass)
- Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, Hammerklaviersonate
- Encore 1 — William Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
- Encore 2 — Carl Czerny: Study op.740/4
- CDs Related to the Recital
|Venue, Date & Time||Aula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2022-02-23 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Klavierissimo Festival 2022|
|Organizer||Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland|
|Reviews from related events, or|
relating to this recital
|Reviews from Klavierissimo Festivals: 2018 | 2019 | 2020 (Beethoven) | 2022|
Concerts organized by Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland
Concerts in the Aula of the KZO, Wetzikon ZH
Media reviews featuring Marc-André Hamelin
The Klavierissimo Festival 2022
The Klavierissimo Festival is an annual event that takes place in the main convention hall of the regional high school (KZO, Kantonsschule Zürcher Oberland) in Wetzikon ZH (close to Zurich). For concert reviews from earlier instances of the Festival see the set of links (first line in the “Reviews from related events” box above). The Festival runs over four days. This year, it happened between 2022-02-23 and 2022-03-26. It featured a series of piano recitals and teaching classes. the festival culminates in several concert events on the last day. I managed to attend five of the recitals:
- 2022-02-23_19:30h: Marc-André Hamelin (this review)
- 2022-02-24_19:30h: Eliane Rodrigues
- 2022-02-26_15:30h: Konstantin Scherbakov
- 2022-02-26_17:30h: Werner Bärtschi
- 2022-02-26_20:00h: Lucas & Arthur Jussen (duo recital)
The Franco-Canadian Marc-André Hamelin (*1961, see also Wikipedia) is one of the “giants” in the world of pianist. An artist with seemingly unlimited dexterity and technical reserves. In the past, he has predominantly tackled pieces of extreme virtuosity by composers such as Alkan, Godowsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Feinberg, Sorabji, and others. I have also posted CD reviews featuring this artist in such repertoire. Hamelin is also adding to that same repertoire by composing himself.
More recently, Marc-André Hamelin has started delving into the classic and romantic repertoire. Here, he doesn’t just perform standard repertoire, such as Beethoven and Schubert, but he is also exploring areas that don’t often appear in concert, the opening piece and the encores are good examples for this.
- Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788): Piano Sonata in E minor, Wq 62/12, H.66
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Sarcasms for Piano, op.17
- Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915): Piano Sonata No.7, op.64, Messe blanche (White Mass)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, Hammerklaviersonate
The concert venue, a high school convention hall in the form of a semi-circular theater (in a circular building) can hold audiences of up to around 350 people. The Klavierissimo Festival rarely fills it to more than 30 – 40%. I took a seat in the upper third, in the right-hand side block. The acoustics are perfect in that position, the view excellent, especially for taking photos.
The instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand in excellent condition, prepared by Bachmann Pianos, Wetzikon.
Concert & Review
C.P.E. Bach: Piano Sonata in E minor, Wq 62/12, H.66
Composer & Work
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788) is the fifth child and second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) and his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach (1684 – 1720). C.P.E. Bach spent most of his life in Berlin (1738 – 1768) and Hamburg (1768 – 1788). His very large oeuvre includes liturgic works, 22 symphonies, around 100 concertos, chamber music, and, most prominently, a large number (over 400) of keyboard works. At his time, C.P.E. Bach’s reputation by far exceeded that of his father. For some general notes about C.P.E. Bach’s legacy and musical style see Wikipedia.
The Piano Sonata in E minor, Wq 62/12, H.66 actually is a baroque suite, not a “proper” (classical) sonata (the program announced it as “Piano Suite”). It featured all typical movements of a baroque suite, with the one unusual feature of a third Menuet:
- Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo — Menuet III — Menuet I da capo
Just a warm-up piece? Maybe, it indeed served the artist to establish an initial connection with the audience, and technically, to adapt to the acoustics, the environment. At the same time, C.P.E. Bach’s sonatas are not beginner’s pieces, and Hamelin wasn’t Hamelin if this music was trivial. Just like sonatas by Haydn or Mozart, C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works come with their own challenges, especially musical ones.
One basic problem is that these composers wrote their keyboard music for instruments such as the clavichord, the harpsichord, or the fortepiano, the closest predecessor of the modern piano. However, even the fortepiano had a vastly different sonority than the piano: softer, lighter, more colorful, rich in harmonics, faster / more responsive in the action. These composers couldn’t even remotely picture or anticipate the sonority of a modern concert grand.
I don’t mean to say that performing 19th century works on a modern grand should be discouraged, let alone prohibited. One should just keep in mind that such performances should be viewed as adaptations, if not even arrangements or paraphrases. In other words: pre-classical and early classical works, seen through the “filter” of a modern concert grand, with its specific sonorities and technical abilities. I would still regard it as desirable for a pianist still to try imitating / restoring at least parts of the atmosphere and sonorities in such music.
Hamelin played this in a calm, flowing tempo, with articulation close to legato, but clear, with well-rounded sonority. He added one or the other little ornament (trills, inverted mordents)—well, adapted to the style of the keyboard music at that time. Hamelin did apply decent, rather subtle agogics. However, not surprisingly, there was no attempt to imitate the articulation or evoke the sonority of period instruments, let alone Klangrede. The latter was originally a term applied to 18th century music, but since Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016) it has “migrated” into historically informed performances up to the classical period.
Fluent, playful, but unexcited and rather uniform in the articulation, dynamics and agogics, even in the few added ornaments.
The term “empfindsamer Stil” instantly came to mind: sensitive music, both serene and pensive. Hamelin played with more agogics than in the “fast” movements, indulging in C.P.E. Bach’s “advanced” harmonics, adding some extra ornaments (turns, inverted mordents) every here and there, especially in the repeats. I watched his use of the sustain pedal: he used it extensively—though not to achieve legato or to blur the sound, but rather, to enhance the sonority within a note.
IV. Menuet I — Menuet II — Menuet I da capo — Menuet III — Menuet I da capo
Menuet I felt like a careful, measured dance. There was a capricious note, e.g., when Hamelin held back the quaver after the eighth rest—not too much, but just enough to get the listener’s attention. The capriciousness of course also stemmed from the sharp semiquaver upbeats and marcato crotchets in the canon melody in the second part.
Menuet II formed a contrast, through its gentle, calm nature, the flowing stream of quavers. Menuet III (after the alternating Menuet I) combined calm (the stepping quaver line in the bass, with subtle staccato) and playfulness in the right hand with its simple, two-bar motif with the accented trill in the second bar. This (Menuet III) could easily have been one of the two-part Inventions, BWV 772 – 786, by the composer’s father, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Even though it’s in E minor, the movement instantly reminded me of the Gigue in J.S. Bach’s French Suite No.5 in G major, BWV 816—the similarities in motifs and the joyful, dancing character were too obvious to ignore.
Prokofiev: Sarcasms for Piano, op.17
Composer & Work
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) completed his five Sarcasms for Piano, op.17 in 1914, after his Toccata in D minor, op.11 and the Piano Sonata No.2 in D minor, op.14 (both from 1912). While writing his op.17, Prokofiev was also working on Piano Sonata No.3 in A minor, op.28 (1907 – 1917) and Piano Sonata No.4 in C minor, op.29 (1908 – 1917). The movement in op.17 annotations are as follows:
- Allegro rubato
- Allegro precipitato
- Precipitosissimo — Andantino — L’istesso tempo
With Prokofiev (and also Scriabin, of course, see below), Marc-André Hamelin seemed to be “in his home turf”! No, I’m not aware of any direct “Russian connection” here. I’m simply referring to his known technical mastership that lets him perform the most technically and physically difficult works—without letting the listener feel how challenging these pieces are.
The vehemence of the first bars lets one think of Prokofiev’s “war sonatas” (Nos.6, 7, 8). However, as the title “Sarcasms” suggests, this isn’t pure anger, but there is also irony, even fun in this music! Consequently, Hamelin’s interpretation wasn’t dry and dogged throughout. It showed powerful, even grim moments, but definitely included humor and fun!
II. Allegro rubato
Here now, the music was definitely humorous, joking, and maybe sarcastic—a performance with a narrative that often felt like a recitative, or maybe a dialog, leading into a heated (but brief) discussion. Fun, definitely, overall, and fascinating!
III. Allegro precipitato
Strongly motoric, concise and precise, but never doggedly mechanical in the first part, with a build-up that suddenly led into the singhiozzando (sobbing) episode. Here, I didn’t sense sobbing as much as a somewhat malicious, acidulous mood. The movement returns to the initial “scene”, with motoric outbursts that ultimately calm down, move into a distance, and then stop abruptly.
“Smanioso” means “eager”. The brilliantly performed first part felt erratic, impulsive and temperamental. My notes mention “a flock or a ménagerie of angry birds”. The middle part (Poco più sostenuto) is fff sempre for 5 bars, reinforced by marcato signs. Here, Hamelin went to the limits of the instrument, deliberately making the strings sound metallic, twanging. That was just an episode, followed by diminuendo subito / pp.
After another fff outburst, the piece turns mysterious, then retracts, finally vanishes in the depth of the bass register, ppp. In that retracting segment, there is another short “bird episode” (pp – ppp) in the right hand: ascending to the highest descant, erratic—this now remotely reminded me of the atmosphere in “Oiseaux tristes” (Sad Birds), the No.2 from “Miroirs”, which Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) composed some 8 – 9 years earlier.
V. Precipitosissimo — Andantino — L’istesso tempo
The initial, Precipitosissimo (Very precipitous) episode is motoric, but rhythmically irregular, through switching between 3/8 and 2/4 meters. The latter in the end prevails, while the music, ironically, “falls apart” and “crashes into the bass”. After a general rest, the Andantino section also bears the annotation irresaluto (irresponsible). Scarce, isolated notes (pp) gradually turn into a denser, but erratic, “random” texture. A reminiscence of the Smanioso movement, with its “bird sceneries”? Humorous, ironic, sarcastic?
The final episode, L’istesso tempo (senza Ped. al Fine), feels like a march, which after a while gets “disturbed” by a grumbling bass “statement”. After this, the piece retracts into the deepest underground, unresolved, an open question. An ending so mysterious that the audience stayed silent for a long while, before applauding.
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
A very compelling interpretation!
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No.7, op.64, Messe blanche (White Mass)
Composer & Work
The oeuvre of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872 – 1915) mainly consists of a large number of piano works (plus 5 symphonies and a piano concerto). The Piano Sonata No.7, op.64, “Messe blanche” (White Mass) falls into the composer’s “Third period” (1907 – 1915). One could characterize the first period (1880s – 1903) as late- or post-romantic. In the second period (1903 – 1907), Scriabin’s music remained tonal, but became more chromatic and dissonant. Finally, in his third and last period, Scriabin was leaving conventional tonality altogether.
Scriabin experienced synesthesia and was obsessed with forms of mysticism—at least at the time when he wrote his Piano Sonatas No.6 (op.62) and No.7. He apparently was afraid of No.6 because of its darkness. He never performed that in public. The Sonata No.7 was a reaction to (or a compensation for) Sonata No.6—hence its title “White Mass”. It consists of a single movement.
The main tempo annotations are simple: Allegro — Poco meno vivo — Molto più vivo — Tempo I
However, Scriabin complements these with a rich, descriptive language in minor annotations, mostly in French. Examples:
- mystérieusement sonore (mysteriously sonorous)
- avec une sombre majesté (with dark majesty)
- avec une céleste volupté (with heavenly sensuality)
- très pur, avec une profonde douceur (very pure, with a profound sweetness)
- impérieux (imperious)
- onduleux, insinuant (undulating, insinuating)
- menaçant (threatening)
- très doux, joyeux, étincelant (very soft, joyful, sparkling)
- vol joyeux (joyful flight)
- comme des éclairs (like lightning bolts)
- foudroyant (thunderous)
- avec éclat (with flare)
- avec une volupté radieuse, extatique (with a radiant, ecstatic sensuality)
- fulgurant (dazzling)
- avec une joie débordante (with overflowing joy)
- en délire (delirious)
Here again, Marc-André Hamelin could truly demonstrate the power, the height of his pianism. It was striking to realize how much he was able to hide the complexity, the technical difficulties in Scriabin’s intricate score. Throughout the 10-minute movement, the audience could indulge in the experience of an explosion of colors (and smells, tastes, as some synesthesists might add).
The music doesn’t offer much in terms of form and development. It does not tell a “story”. There aren’t “themes” in the conventional sense. Rather, there are recurring “Leitmotifs“, rhythmic elements, short melody fragments, interwoven with broken (dissonant) chord cascades and waves. However, it is an abundant, densely packed painting, rich in harmonies and textures. And while diving into the music, the listener almost instantly forgets the notion of dissonance. A magic soundscape, indeed!
Just like the composer, the pianist proved a true sound magician. He made the complexity of the piece sound natural. He achieved this without excessive blurring with the sustain pedal, yet exploring the entire sonoric scope of the instrument. At the same time, he separated the motivic elements from the sonorous background without ever dissecting or fragmenting the texture. Masterful, definitely!
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, Hammerklaviersonate
Composer & Work
The famous Piano Sonata No.29 in B♭ major, op.106, Hammerklaviersonate by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) doesn’t require an introduction. For information on the composition see also earlier posts, such as from a recital on 2018-01-31. The movements:
- Scherzo: Assai vivace – Presto – Prestissimo — Tempo I
- Adagio sostenuto
- Introduzione: Largo — Un poco più vivace — Allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto
Many listeners might think that the outer movements in this sonata are the main challenges. Technically, they are probably right. Musically, however, it’s the slow movement where many, perhaps most artists fail. I have not witnessed a successful concert performance so far, and even many recordings are disappointing here. The principal challenge is, to keep the tension, the movement’s “breath”, the big arch over the entire duration (of typically more than 15 minutes). The problem is compounded by the excessively slow tempo that many artists select.
In the Adagio sostenuto, Beethoven specifies ♪=92 (6/8 time). The composer’s metronome marks may be on the fast side in general. Recent research suggests that Beethoven may simply have mis-interpreted the scale on his metronome, in that he read the scale below the weight of the pendulum, rather than above (Martin-Castro & Ucar, 2020). This explains some of the composer’s excessively high metronome marks. In this case, it may imply a “true” (intended) metronome reading of around ♪=60. However, many artists go was below that—and often fail.
After the intermission, Marc-André Hamelin briefly accepted the applause, then sat down and—without further ado—reached into the keys for the biggest work in his recital program—Beethoven’s monumental (at the time) Hammerklaviersonate.
I can’t deny that for most of the Beethoven sonata, Marc-André Hamelin didn’t match my—arguably very high, maybe excessive—expectations. It’s hard to describe why I felt that way, to pinpoint specific features in the performance. Yes, the ff opening had verve, impetus. However, soon thereafter, the performance often sounded almost easy, lighthearted—as if it was one of the sonatas in the composer’s middle period. It seemed to lack the significance that the composer must have attributed to this work. To his contemporaries the sonata must have felt like a monstrosity, both in its dimensions, as well as in its technical demands.
That impression continued in the development part, where the effortlessness in Hamelin’s playing made the piece sound too easy. The rests (bars 134ff, with sustain pedal) failed to develop tension, and sometimes, the artist appeared to reduce the music to a mere sound painting. Interestingly, I also noted the occasional sloppiness in the artist’s touch (in right-hand chords, specifically), even rarely a missed key. I know Hamelin can do better than that. At the end of the development part, the artist inserted a pause that was long enough to make me think of a memory lapse. There is no general rest. Did the pianist really just want to clarify the structure by indicating the start of the recap section?
II. Scherzo: Assai vivace – Presto – Prestissimo — Tempo I
Also here, the occasional superficialities continued to occur, e.g., in the articulation of some of the semiquavers. The articulation felt rather mellow, and there was more than one noticeable mishap in the semplice part (B♭ minor, bar #47ff). The Presto segment felt insignificant, the short “semiquaver shake” after Prestissimo “rocket” rather ill-defined. Hamelin can’t possibly be challenged by this movement! Fatigue? Neglect??
III. Adagio sostenuto
My remarks on the above movements may seem very critical. Here, I must concede that Hamelin’s performance was truly big art, masterful. It’s the first time that I witnessed a successful performance of this movement in concert! To some, it may have felt exceedingly slow—it wasn’t, certainly not to the extreme. Rather, that impression came from the absolute calm, the consequence with which Hamelin stuck to his pace. Consequence, not stubbornness or rigidity. Every phrase, every bar was shaped through dynamics, agogics, and articulation.
Nothing was ever rushed or “running away”, yet—more importantly—there wasn’t a single, dead moment, or a loss in tension, despite often rather “romantic” agogics / rhythmic swaying, with occasional, seemingly “infinite” ritenuti at transitions between phrases. One of those was the pause in bar 113. Also the transitions in bar #125 (F♯ major), bars #129 and #166 were stunning. The same holds true for the climax at bar #142, or the “little infinity” in bar #155, or the last bars, with the final ppp arpeggio stretched to the extreme. Big art, big pianism!
IV. Introduzione: Largo — Un poco più vivace — Allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto
In the introduction (Largo — Un poco più vivace), Hamelin was able to carry forward the tension from the slow movement. Unfortunately, that only lasted up to the Allegro (bars #3ff). Here, already the first bars sounded almost casual, the articulation superficial. The fugue was rather (too) fast, too legato, lacking contours and transparency, often dominated by an exceedingly heavy bass. I have no doubts about Hamelin’s technical abilities—but there were too many superficialities. Not only was the fugue too fast, the tempo also made the fugue sound far more dissonant than it should be.
The one “bright(er) spot” was the calm, serene una corda section (bars #250 – #278, D major, sempre dolce, cantabile)—but that could not compensate .
Overall Rating: ★★★★
The real highlight here was the Adagio sostenuto. The performance in the other movements (albeit technically impressive) was far less convincing, unfortunately.
Encore 1 — William Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
Composer & Work
- Graceful Ghost Rag
- Poltergeist Rag
- Dream Shadows Rag
Considering that Hamelin comes from North America, this choice of encore was of course no surprise. It brought us into the world of the famous, classic 1902 piano rag “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917). Even though Bolcom’s rag is certainly more artful, offering far more depth, it still may have felt a bit odd, if not flat after all the works that we heard before, especially the Adagio sostenuto in Beethoven’s op.106, or the compositions by Scriabin and Prokofiev. Yes, Hamelin’s performance her was excellent, in-style, playful, pensive—and flawless. But still, in this context, it wasn’t necessarily the optimum choice.
Encore 2 — Carl Czerny: Study op.740/4
Composer & Work
Carl Czerny (1791 – 1857) was a famous piano teacher and a prolific composer. His work catalog runs up to op.861. Wikipedia mentions piano music (études, nocturnes, 11 sonatas, opera theme arrangements and variations), masses and choral music, 6 symphonies, concertos, songs, string quartets and other chamber music. Czerny apparently divided his works into four classes: studies and exercises, easy pieces for students, “brilliant pieces for concerts”, and “serious music”.
Marc-André Hamelin announced his encore with “This piece is—believe it or not—Czerny!”. This turned out to be the Study (Étude) No.4 (“Light Motion in quiet Staccato”: Molto Allegro) from book 1 of The Art of Finger Dexterity (Kunst der Fingerfertigkeit), op.740 (a collection of 50 studies in 6 books). The “believe it or not” in the announcement must have referred to the doubtful reputation that Carl Czerny may have among piano students. Many of them must have spent hours on endless hours rehearsing examples from what the composer classified as “easy pieces for students”. The encore, though, clearly falls into the category of “studies and exercises”—and op.740 is full of advanced, even brilliant pieces!
Now, this was entertaining music, too—but a far more appropriate / adapted choice than the rag. Hamelin’s performance here may not have been as careful and poignant as in (some of) the main program—nevertheless: it was a pleasant surprise, and a fitting closure. It actually made me curious to discover more of Czerny’s advanced studies!
CDs Related to the Recital
Scriabin: The Complete Piano Sonatas — Marc-André Hamelin (1995)
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonatas 1 – 10, Sonate-Fantaisie in G♯ minor, op.posth.
Hyperion CDA 67131/2 (2 CDs stereo, ℗ / © 1996)
Martin-Castro, A., & Ucar, I. (2020). Conductors’ tempo choices shed light over Beethoven’s metronome. PLOS ONE, 15(12), e0243616. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243616