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​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON July 26th 2018

My exploration of summer music festivals continued this evening with the excellent recital of pianist Marc-André Hamelin at the lively and well programmed festival in Stratford. When I told my teacher, Damjana Bratuz, whom I am going to see in three days, and for whom I will play for the first time in forty years, the recital I was attending, she said “A beautiful program,” and “Che artista!” Both remarks turned out to be true. It was a beautiful program, and what an artist!

Pianists tend to specialize in certain repertoires according to their strengths. Sviatoslav Richter had an artistic grasp of large forms that allowed him to unify them in a way that carried the attention of the audience through a whole work, however complex. Michelangeli was justly renowned for the precision of his touch, which translated well to his preferred repertoire of Ravel. Hamelin’s strengths, it seems to me, are in his very broad dynamic palette, his careful and studied voice leading, in the rhythmic energy of his playing, and in the interpretation of lyrical genres of the early twentieth century.

Tonight Hamelin played a lovely piece called Cypresses, written in 1920 by the Italian composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco. He also performed his own transcriptions, from recordings, of jazzy arrangements of six popular songs by the French musician Charles Trénet. These were delightful, harmonically rich and melodically expressive.

Hamelin performed Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, the work that has the poetic quotation to the effect that there is a secret sound that rings within all tones, a sound that relates the ‘world dream’. Are we allowed to continue to dream, as advancing age confronts us with terrible loss or challenges to our health? May we continue to do the things we love, and that we did well as young people?

I managed to fall at the end of one of my walks last week. The boards on the walkway were uneven, I was hot and tired, and I caught the toe of my shoe on a protruding piece of wood. I was not gripping the handrail, I failed to find my footing, and, deliberately, I lifted my hands in the air (to save my fingers), and face-planted on the boardwalk.

As I got up, my walking coach asked me what I was thinking. I replied that it was a good fall because I saved my hands. He said he understood but I had saved them with my face. A younger friend saw my face, and said with concern and interest, ‘Are you still worrying about your fingers for piano playing?’

Yes, still. I want to continue playing four-hand music with my friend, and I still dream of the joy of finding the touch that makes the instrument sing. The belief that I can still accomplish this may not say much for my humility, but I fall back on the words of the great poet Ezra Pound,

"In vain have I striven, to teach my heart to bow;
In vain have I said to him, 'There be many singers greater than thou'.

But his answer cometh, as winds and as lutany, As a vague crying upon the night
That leaveth me no rest, saying ever, 'Song, a song.'

Hamelin began his recital with Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne, a piece that I learned to my great joy when I was 19 (that was a little while ago). Have you ever watched a sports event and cheered or coached an athlete because you felt you knew where he or she had to stand, or how a shot could be made? I knew that I would be a backseat driver and coach while Hamelin played the Chaconne. How could I help it?

I approved of his opening tempo and nodded. Hamelin surprised me with the strength of his dynamic contrasts and I silently murmured a ‘well done’. His voice leading was very strong as the melody migrated to different positions, again earning him my praise. The melody moved to the lower range. ‘I make that sound like trombones’, I remarked, ‘but you don’t have to. You’re telling the story your way’. ‘Still, my trombones are better,’ I thought.

Hamelin reached the beginning of the section that slowly accumulates over the pedal point on the note A. ‘Don’t make it heavy’, I urged. ‘Dance, dance.’ He danced. As the music built up, I cheered him on, ‘Ride, ride!’ I shouted in my mind. He rode. ‘Stretch this part out a bit’, I encouraged, but he did not. ‘Never mind, he is telling the story his way’, I thought, ‘but I wish he would stretch this out a bit’.

As Hamelin reached the loud and dramatic conclusion, there was a bit of key noise. ‘The more weight you have, the more you put on this’, my teacher had advised. I understood Hamelin’s slight problem in tone production for these few bars. ‘I outweigh him by, well, a whole lot’, I considered.

I realized I was swaying to the music, conducting, making piano gestures, and gyrating in my seat. As the applause died down, I saw I was the only one standing. At intermission, an audience member approached me and referred to the lively way in which I had listened to the Busoni. ‘I only took my eyes off Hamelin to watch you’, she said. I explained that I had played the piece years ago. I told her that now that I am retired, I am playing again. ‘Are you any good?’ she asked. ‘I used to be’, I answered. ‘Weren’t we all?’ she asked.

And that is the beauty of dreams. I thank Maestro Hamelin for a wonderful evening of music, and for making me feel young at heart. His playing has restored one of my dreams. And now I must practise. My teacher is coming in three days.

Marc-André Hamelin; Photo credit: Scott Wishart

Stratford Summer Music Festival: Thrills and Dreams with Marc-André Hamelin