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Marc-André Hamelin is in a select group of Canadian virtuoso pianists who grew up following in the footsteps of Glenn Gould: a generation of pianists that includes Jon Kimura Parker, Janina Fialkowska, André Laplante, Louis Lortie, and Angela Hewitt, each of whom has made a mark on the world stage. Hamelin distinguishes himself in this group as one who has made a point of exploring lesser-known piano repertoire in addition to his stellar interpretations of the nineteenth century masterpieces. Last night at the Jane Mallet Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre, Music Toronto presented a solo recital by Hamelin for the twelfth time over the past thirty-two years.

True to form, last night’s concert was a compelling blend of the familiar and obscure. Bach and Chopin were paired with Feinberg, Weissenberg and Castelnuova-Tedesco. Who would think that such a smorgasbord could provide a satisfying musical feast?

The program opened with J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for violin, BWV 1004 transcribed for piano solo by Ferruccio Busoni. As one who has always loved this work on violin, I was apprehensive about hearing it on piano. The harmonies and especially the bass which must be imagined when listening to the original, here was filled in completely – and then some. Busoni wrote a gigantic romanticized arrangement that could be compared to a Victorian version of Handel’s Messiah with 400 singers and two hundred in the orchestra. Hamelin gave an entirely convincing performance. The resolute opening chords of the left hand and the contrasting light and gentle texture in the first variation was just a taste of what was to come. The rapid-fire bass octaves, arpeggios, and scale passages were played with authority. Hamelin’s virtuosity gave the work the grandeur that popularized the work when Busoni first introduced it at the turn of the twentieth century. I think that Bach might have enjoyed it as much as those in the audience.

The concert’s heavy lifting followed. Samuil Feinberg ‘s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 3 was as technically challenging as it was complex in its structure and emotional weight. Feinberg was a pianist with the skill of Rachmaninoff and a leader of the Russian school of piano composition following in the tradition of Scriabin and the Russian greats of the nineteenth century. He wrote music that stretched the limits of tonality and what is possible with two hands. The sonata opened with a remarkable introduction for left hand reminiscent of Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne for Left Hand. In the second movement, a funeral march, descending leaps, big chords and thick chromatic texture suggested the sense of loss. The final movement, the longest and most virtuosic, brought highs and lows of emotion, agitation and tranquility in an outpouring of the musical spirit. Hamelin was entirely convincing. I can fully understand his passion for the seldom heard music of Feinberg.

The second half of the concert had more surprises. Hamelin transcribed piano arrangements of French music-hall songs of Charles Trenet. They were jazzy, popular, sentimental songs of the 1940's -1960's reminiscent of vaudeville. Trenet was a very popular French entertainer/singer from Paris. Alexis Weissenberg, who created the arrangements, failed to write his arrangements down and thus, Hamelin took on the task. What fun! And how unexpected to hear these light-hearted tunes in the middle of a serious program, and yet performed with panache and sensitive expressiveness.

Another unfamiliar composer followed. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi gave yet another glimpse into the musical mind of Hamelin. The relatively obscure Italian composer’s music had a somewhat childlike tunefulness encased in impressionistic textures producing an evocative effect of understated elegance. Although his music is seldom performed today, he was well-known as a guitar composer and, long after composing last night’s offering, he composed music for over 200 Hollywood films.

The program concluded with two of the late works by Frederyk Chopin, Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat and Scherzo No. 4 in E, Op. 54. This was music of the highest order performed flawlessly. I was particularly carried away with the Scherzo’s duality of a playful spirit and melancholic lyricism. What a performance! Following four curtain calls, he added an encore, Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 in A flat Major (from Four Impromptus, D.935).

Marc-André Hamelin will return to the Jane Mallet Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre on February 14, 2019 along with the Juilliard String Quartet to perform Anton Dvorák’s Piano Quintet No. 2, Op. 81. The St. Lawrence Quartet with baritone Tyler Duncan will be Music Toronto’s next offering on Thursday, October 18, 2018 at 8pm in the Jane Mallet Theatre

​​Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 10th 2018

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin brings passion to familiar and obscure repertoire!

Marc-André Hamelin
 Photo Credit: Sim Cannety-Clarke