Haydn – Piano sonata in B minor, Hob.XVI:32
Chopin – Piano sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Debussy – Préludes: Book II
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
The name of C.P.E. Bach occurred to me more than once during Marc-André Hamelin’s performance of Haydn’s marvellous B minor sonata. I subsequently discovered a guarded comparison between Emanuel Bach and Haydn in Misha Donat’s programme notes, so it seems that he, the pianist, and even your humble reviewer were thinking along similar lines – in my case, it must be said, as a result of Hamelin’s performance. Hamelin presented the sonata with some of the exaggerations that characterise the boundary between the Baroque and the Classical. The dynamic contrasts and use of the sustaining pedal were unashamedly Romantic but there were also numerous instances of late Baroque mannerism, not least in terms of the crushed ornamentation. It was rather as if Glenn Gould were being crossed with Mikhail Pletnev or even, given the sometimes chocolate-like tone, with Evgeny Kissin. I wondered whether the agogic exaggeration in statements of the first movement’s first subject would become merely irritating but it did not; instead, it heightened the sense of characterisation. This movement was taken quite fast for an Allegro moderato yet the tempo worked. Hamelin took the second repeat, adding to the distancing from the Classical period proper. The following major-mode minuet sounded duly Classical, almost Mozartian, yet also perhaps just the slightest touch empty, as if Hamelin were eager to return to the Sturm und Drang of B minor, which he did in the vehement trio. I wondered whether the Presto finale was a shade too fast, but Haydn’s marking is after all presto. Hamelin took it as a moto perpetuo, which swept all before it – all, that is, save for the slightly heavy-handed repeated notes at the outset, a problem that soon righted itself. His octaves were an object lesson in style and projection.
We remained in B minor for Chopin’s third piano sonata. I was not sure that Hamelin quite had the measure of this work as a whole, although his performance certainly boasted splendid aspects. It was almost as if the music were too easy (!) for such a super-virtuoso. In the first movement, we were treated to a melting second subject, on its first and subsequent appearances, but its predecessor was just a little straightforward. That said, there was a fine sense of musical transformation when it came to the recapitulation. Needless to say, any technical challenges were readily surmounted. The scherzo was a definite instance in which the music sounded a little too ‘easy’ for the pianist. There was a sense of him gliding over its musical substance. The trio appeared to benefit through its lack of virtuosity. Hamelin presented a ruminative yet nevertheless developmental Largo, with a fine sense of the barcarolle later on, although some of the earlier material sounded a touch matter of fact. The finale was impressively virtuosic, which is not to say emptily so, although, like sections of the third movement, it sometimes veered dangerously close to Rachmaninov. I wondered whether Hamelin would have been happier more at home performing Alkan.
Debussy seemed to speak more readily to this pianist, as we heard in the second book of Préludes. The veiled quality of Brouillards sounded spot on, followed by exquisite voicing in Feuilles mortes – that in a piece one would not necessarily have thought most lent itself to such ‘Romantic’ treatment. Its music was certainly heard ‘without hammers’ – likewise in Canape – and with fine use of the sustaining pedal. La puerta del vino suffered from a heavy-handed opening – repeated upon re-visitation of the opening material – but the piece was characterised more generally by a fine sense of insistent rhythm and exotic danger. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune benefited from a nicely mysterious opening, the mood continuing throughout Hamelin’s performance. There was an interesting hint of an almost Brahmsian waltz rhythm at times. Not every prelude was equally successful. Bruyères, for instance, was well executed but a little plain. ‘General Lavine’ – excentric captured the eccentric aspect well but primary colours were a little too much to the fore elsewhere. Les Tierces alternées sounded a little too close to the parodic style Debussy had employed in Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum; again, I wondered if its technical challenges were not great enough. But in the final Feux d’artifice, post-Lisztian pyrotechnics were undoubtedly appropriate; Hamelin’s glissando was simply jaw-dropping. Despite certain reservations, then, this was in many respects an estimable account. I suspect that the audience would have been treated to an encore or two but this must remain mere suspicion on my part since, unfortunately, I had to leave immediately.