MUSIC / Strong but gentle: Adrian Jack on a three-part survey of forgotten 19th-century virtuoso works by Marc-Andre Hamelin

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The Independent Culture
Marc-Andre Hamelin is a pianist it's easy to take for granted. Over the past few weeks he has given three recitals at the Wigmore Hall concentrating on neglected virtuoso music mainly of the 19th century. All were being recorded live for eventual release on CD by Hyperion and the programmes were devised by Hamelin's record producer, Ates Orga, with all the relish of someone who knows when he's on to a good thing.

Only the first of Alkan's Trois Grandes Etudes, which Hamelin played on Thursday, would obviously need a bit of patching. Written for the left hand alone, the piece is full of the most amazing jumps and layering of parts, as is the still longer right-hand study that followed, which Hamelin played immaculately. As music, the third study, reuniting the hands in an attractively murky perpetuum mobile, is much more distinctive, with a characteristically sour charm.

Perhaps this morose contemporary of Liszt, too retiring to compete with him, will always divide opinion between those who revel in his blend of objective austerity and preposterous technical challenges, and those who hear only shallow note-spinning. Unsurprisingly, Alkan's vast cadenza for Beethoven's Third Concerto, which Hamelin played in his first recital, lends support to the second view. Yet Hamelin played it, as he played everything, with such relaxed elegance, it was impossible to call it bombastic. In his hands, even Liszt's arrangement of Wagner's overture to Tannhauser (included in his second recital, devoted to opera and song) sounded lyrical.

To be strong is to be gentle, and because he didn't have to struggle for the notes, Hamelin appeared to let the piano itself do the work. The sound in Thalberg's cumulative Don Pasquale Fantasy was huge, yet produced without apparent effort. Sometimes the lack of tension in Hamelin's playing reduced the music's power and sense of excitement. Yet he was never merely slack.

You could say that, all things considered, the act of virtuoso transcription and paraphrase is rather like filleting a fish, which makes the 'meat' more attractive, more available to the consumer, but hardly brings it back to life. Not for nothing did Percy Grainger call his arrangements 'dishing up'. Nor does elaboration give a musical idea more weight: Godowsky's transcription of the first song of Schubert's Winterreise completely removes the sombreness of the original, and his Passacaglia on the loaded first eight bars of the Unfinished Symphony turned out to be not the grand dramatic edifice we might have expected, but a languidly sybaritic reverie rather like Delius.

Godowsky cropped up again in two encores on separate nights, with his delicious 'Gardens of Buitenzorg' from the Java Suite of 1924 and left-hand-only version of Chopin's Revolutionary Study, which Hamelin played almost as if it were a more natural alternative to the original; it didn't exactly rage, but he certainly made it sing.

Towards the end of this feast, Hamelin performed Medtner's Sonata-Ballade, written just before the First World War - for all its warm feeling, a sober antidote to the sugar and spice in most of the programmes. More of that kind of contrast in the two earlier recitals would not have been unwelcome, but that's, perhaps, a mean response to Hamelin's generosity.

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