The world's greatest pianist?

Marc-André Hamelin's technique inspires awe in audiences and superlatives from critics. But even more impressive is his eclectic intelligence at large in a world of bland virtuosity
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The Independent Culture

"Virtuoso". It is somehow a faintly embarrassing word to use of an artist, like "sex symbol" or "doyen". I rack my brains and the Roget's Thesaurus, but no precise replacement comes to mind. So I decide to use it anyway - and I sense Marc-André Hamelin's slight cringe as I do so, though he is far too polite to let it show.

"Virtuoso". It is somehow a faintly embarrassing word to use of an artist, like "sex symbol" or "doyen". I rack my brains and the Roget's Thesaurus, but no precise replacement comes to mind. So I decide to use it anyway - and I sense Marc-André Hamelin's slight cringe as I do so, though he is far too polite to let it show.

Unsatisfactory epithet though it might be given the wide-ranging nature of Hamelin's talent, there are few pianists alive who measure up to it more impressively than this 39-year-old Canadian. His interpretations of Liszt, Alkan, Sorabji, and other legendary titans of the piano repertoire, habitually inspire in audiences an almost mystical sense of awe - and in critics an abundance of awed superlatives. One critic raved over his "terrifying virtuosity, scorching pianism, ineffable beauty..." Martin Anderson of this newspaper has called him the man who "must now be the closest, post-Horowitz, to claiming the title of 'world's greatest pianist'".

Hamelin doesn't reject the V-word out of hand; he merely plays down its importance in the scheme of things. "I do think there's an over-emphasis on virtuosity. Everything seems very athletic right now: the population is very geared to the physical side of things. But I've always had a musical brain as well - and without a good musical brain, technical skill means nothing."

No less an authority than Harold Schoenberg, author of The Great Pianists, once described Hamelin as a "super-virtuoso", making him sound like some Nietzschean hero, thundering away at the double octaves. In person, however, he is hardly the demonic figure of Romantic musical myth, but a pale, mild-mannered man who smiles diffidently and speaks gently, as if reserving energy for the huge demands of his performances.

Among a generation of pianists not exactly noted for its outbursts of individualism, Hamelin stands out as a unique phenomenon. He represents a confluence of two aesthetic strands: on one hand, the noble lineage of keyboard wizards fathered by Liszt, furthered by Busoni and carried into the 20th century by Rachmaninov and Horowitz. On the other, a thoroughly modern sensibility that places a greater value on cool control and intelligence than on showmanship alone.

Cogitation plus prestidigitation - it's a winning combination. Listen to Hamelin's recent double CD of Godowsky's complete Studies on Chopin's Etudes, and what amazes, as much as the transcendental brilliance of his technique, which we have almost come to take for granted, is the skill with which he turns what might otherwise have been a bloated kitsch-fest into an exquisitely civilised musical entertainment.

This weekend Hamelin comes to London for a mini-festival of music-making at Blackheath Concert Halls that reveals his taste as not so much catholic as thoroughly ecumenical. Five concerts in three days see him covering a remarkable amount of musical ground, from Bach and Schubert, Fauré and Brahms (a Sunday morning chamber concert with the Leopold String Trio), to an evening of cabaret songs in which he accompanies his wife, singer Jody Karin Applebaum.

Unrepentant lovers of bravura pianism need not despair, however, since for them the weekend offers three items of irresistible bait. The first solo recital, on Friday, features a performance of the torrentially difficult Passacaglia of Godowsky, which Horowitz himself declared was "impossible: it needed six hands to play it". And in the second recital on the Sunday, two more gems: a rare outing for the Symphony for Solo Piano by the reclusive French pianist-composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), whose long absence from the canon has been compounded by the horrifying difficulty of his writing, and the world premiere of the Second Sonata by Nicolai Kapustin (b. 1937), whom Hamelin now considers "one of the undiscovered treasures of the piano repertoire".

When he first encountered Kapustin's music, he says, "my mouth fell open. It was so unbelievably fresh. He shows a marked interest in jazz, in fact all his works are in jazz style, except that Kapustin writes everything out, which is a dream come true for all classical pianists. He's a hot item in Japan, apparently. There's a website devoted to him, too. He'll be at the concert, of course - but because he has a fear of flying, he'll be coming by train, all the way from Moscow."

Cultish, obscure and touched with eccentricity - Kapustin sounds like a composer after Hamelin's own heart. The pianist has always been a champion of neglected and forgotten music, and a glance at his discography turns up composers like Eckhardt-Gramatté, Feinberg, and Josef Marx - names that will be unfamiliar to all but the keenest connoisseur of late-Romantic decadence. Though "undiscovered," he points out, may often simply mean "underperformed" - as was the case with Paul Dukas' Sonata and Szymanowski's Sonata No 2, both of which had languished for years in music's recycle bin until he came along to save them.

Hamelin casts his mind back to his childhood in Montreal, where it was his father, a pharmacist by trade who was also a keen amateur pianist, who first shone a light for him into the murkier corners of the piano repertoire, illuminating first Alkan - "my father brought home some recordings and we listened to them together. I must have been seven or eight" - then Medtner, and finally Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), the reclusive and shadowy composer of such fearsome creations as the Opus Clavicembalisticum, which if were ever to be performed in full would last for four and a half hours.

"At the age of 15, I ordered a copy of the Opus from Blackwell's in the UK," he remembers. "Luckily I was just in time - that was the year it went out of print. Even looking at a score like that will change your life. Unfortunately Sorabji's work will never reach a large public. Bear in mind that 20 or 25 of his works are of at least 300 pages in length... I would have to set aside three or four years to learn them, and I'd probably need a government grant."

His musical curiosity is limitless and omnivorous. Aided and abetted by his wife, he has lately been rediscovering the work of Berlin composer Friedrich Holländer, whose songs are to feature largely in the cabaret recital on Saturday evening in Blackheath. It turns out to have been quite a detective story, involving visits to the Cabaret Archive in Mainz and energetic rummages through the second-hand music shops of London. Holländer, a German Jew, was forced to flee Berlin in 1933 after the seizure of power by the Nazis, who not only disliked his music but systematically destroyed as much of it as they could find.

Hamelin's enthusiasm for what they found is positively evangelical. "In the 1920s in Berlin, Holländer was it. The music is vital, intoxicatingly beautiful, full of lush romantic lines. He was a true master of composition. There's a chord in a song called 'Melodie Perverse' which is one of my favourite chords in the whole of music. I always like to think there are jewels out there waiting to be discovered, and this was certainly a jewel worth hunting out," he says gleefully. The treasure trove will be open this weekend.

Marc-André Hamelin, Fri to Sun, Blackheath Concert Halls, 23 Lee Road, London SE3 (020-8463 0100)

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