Marc-André Hamelin, Piano
Marc-André Hamelin belongs to an exclusive club of super virtuoso pianists, along with (among others) Michelangeli, Horowitz, Argerich and Kissin. I count myself fortunate to have heard these four in live performance. In each case the pianist has imposed him or herself onto the music in an unforgettable and inimitable way. Sometimes this works wonderfully well, such as when Horowitz plays Scarlatti or Kissin plays Prokofiev. At other times the result is jarring and unnatural, as in Horowitz's Beethoven. Horowitz was not above rewriting certain passages. Hamelin, for all his technical prowess, takes a different route. He does not impose his personality upon the music but instead uses his prodigious talents to bring largely unfamiliar works before the listening public with full reverence for the composer. I am anxious to hear his Bach, Beethoven and Schubert, but meanwhile this issue brings us the two Shostakovich piano concertos, and that is about as close to the mainstream as he has yet ventured in the recording studio.
You don't have to be a super virtuoso to play the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto (1933), but Hamelin’s remarkable articulation permits a faster tempo without the expected loss of clarity of line or flexibility of phrasing. This extra pace increases the excitement of this exuberant work. Perfect shaping of the opening phrase marks this as a performance of real distinction, just as a fine opening sentence usually heralds a really good book. Hamelin inhabits this work, and his rapport with Andrew Litton lends an ideal chamber music feel to the performance.
This recording gives a slight prominence to the piano and captures a very wide dynamic range, with great clarity and with a surprising degree of warmth. This is particularly apparent in the lento second movement, where the gentle trumpet of Mark O’Keeffe floats over the hushed strings. This mood is then reflected in Hamelin’s quiet accompaniment as the movement draws to a close.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra plays with remarkable alacrity and lightness of touch, especially in the carnival atmosphere of the fourth movement allegro con brio. This features snippets of several well-known tunes, including Beethoven’s rondo Rage Over a Lost Penny. O'Keeffe’s trumpet now takes on a deliciously playful air, and his playing throughout is a delight. Hamelin joins in the fun as the movement accelerates to its exuberant ending.
My father was a constant source of strength as I was growing up, but the one thing he failed to do was to compose a piano concerto to help me gain admission to a fine music school. Maxim Shostakovich was lucky enough to have a father do just this for him. Maxim premiered this work, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, on his nineteenth birthday in 1957, and won admission to the school of his choice. This concerto is a winner, full of hijinks and youthful exuberance in the outer movements, where Hamelin and Litton present a wonderfully exciting performance with much colorful playing. The second movement andante is one of the most beautiful and affecting movements written in the twentieth century, and I cannot conceive of a more perfect realization. Hamelin’s pellucid tone and carefully modulated phrasing allow the music to breathe but never to outstay its welcome. I would buy this disc for this movement alone. The ensemble between piano and orchestra is an example of what is possible and yet so rarely achieved.
Andrew Litton has recorded this work before, in the dual role of conductor and soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DELOS 3246), and the two performances make an interesting comparison. This new version simply has more of everything -- excitement, space, poetry and charm -- as Hamelin allows the music to breathe and uses a larger tonal palette. It joins the Bernstein recording (Sony SMK 89752) as a top recommendation.
Rounding out the CD is an altogether more modern and formidable work, the Second Piano Concerto (1966) of Rodion Shchedrin. My musical tastes do not usually extend to twelve-tone music, but in this case I will make an exception. This three-movement piece is a riot, full of life and humor, and I defy you not to air-conduct the rousing finale. Shchedrin’s own idiomatic performance with Evgeny Svetlanov and the USSR symphony orchestra (Melodiya 74321 36907 2) is a fine performance with spiky pianism from the composer and sensational playing from the orchestra, but this new performance can hold its own through the greater dynamic range and breadth of line of Hamelin's pianism. This work is clearly derivative of Shostakovich, but not the Shostakovich we hear on this record. Musical ideas are hurled out at the listener and the piano appears to attack the orchestra, which replies in kind. Where else will you hear a jazz combo interrupt a piano concerto? This cat Hamelin can swing.
Hats off! A winner.