Riding with a relaxed smile over the toughest technical challenges Liszt and Godowsky could throw at a pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin is famed as the man for whom everything is easy, and the crowd here knew exactly what they wanted.
But as an opener he chose Haydn’s quirky little E minor sonata, as he’s got form in that department too. He approached it like an affectionate watchmaker, setting each movement’s mechanism going and fine-tuning its adjustment in a way which felt nicely in period, light on the pedal and getting the big Steinway to seem not a million miles from the fortepiano for which this work was conceived. The first movement had a gay impulsiveness, the second a conversational candour, and with the third movement comedy constantly lurked in the wings.
Next came Schuman’s ‘Carnaval’, and though we entered a different pianistic world, it was not Schumann’s. The only way to catch this suite’s spirit is to surrender to its wayward momentum, but Hamelin’s laser-like mind was bent on imposing a momentum of its own. Though his readings were at times original, with the fast passages despatched superfast, and the angularities as jagged as could be imagined, the work just exuded clinical efficiency: only in the ‘Eusebius’ variation did the piano sing. When the heart dictates how the keys are touched, the sound is unmistakable, but that was not where Hamelin was coming from, or going to.
What can one say of Stefan Wolpe’s arid tone-row ‘Passacaglia’? That it reflected its composer’s dogged modernism, composed in 1936 but sounding like a Darmstadt offering from thirty years later; that it reflected a puzzle-creating cleverness, and allowed Hamelin to display his own. The Debussy preludes which followed let us see his formidable gifts in their full glory: what he did with ‘Feux d’artifice’ took the breath away, as evocation, and as pure virtuosity.
If Liszt’s ‘Reminiscences de Norma’ was designed as Hamelin’s coup de grace to his fans, it worked a treat, though with none of the poetry of Jorge Bolet’s celebrated Youtube performance. Relaxing at last, Hamelin played us out with a Chopin nocturne which possessed something the rest of the evening had conspicuously lacked: magic.