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Marc-André Hamelin
12 Etudes in all the minor keys; Little Nocturne; five pieces from Con intimissimo sentimento; Theme and Variations (Cathy's Variations)
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Review By Joe Milicia


  The great Québécois pianist Marc-André Hamelin displays his compositional talents in conjunction with his fantastic keyboard skills on a recent Hyperion CD. Piano virtuosi who were known equally well as composers were once the norm — if there can be a "norm" in the rarified world of true genius--from Mozart/Beethoven and Chopin/Liszt up to Prokofiev/Rachmaninoff, but hardly since. I haven't heard any music composed by Hamelin other than what is on this disc, and wouldn't want to make any grand claims for his music, but I might estimate that at the least he belongs among the ranks of Godowsky and Paderewski as a pianist-composer. I certainly got a great deal of pleasure from the CD, and anticipate more, since his works are complex and subtle enough to deserve repeated listening. Great sound from Hyperion doesn't hurt either.

The major work on the CD, comprising about 50 minutes of its generous 76-minute time, is a set of "12 Etudes in all the minor keys." The title hints at a pedagogical purpose going back to the "studies" of Carl Czerny and others designed to improve an instrumentalist's skills in every key. Of course, the great sets of etudes by Chopin and Liszt were intended more as deeply thoughtful music to be performed by their composers than as exercises for even the most advanced schoolchildren. (A number of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes are really tone-poems for the piano, though they do form a set of pieces neatly in six different major and corresponding minor keys.) Hamelin's Etudes likewise seem tailor-made for his astounding pianistic skills, though his extensive and very interesting program notes for the CD booklet indicate that he welcomes performances by others. Perhaps the closest model from the past comes from the works of Charles-Valentin Alkan — a favorite of Hamelin in performance — who also wrote a set of etudes for all 12 minor keys, along with another set of 12 in the major keys.

Hamelin's Etudes were written over a span of 24 years (1986-2009), with a 12-year hiatus separating six of them from the other six. Half of the Etudes are arrangements of or fantasies on music by other composers; the other six are fully original. (I assume there is no numerological significance here.) Interestingly, Hamelin stresses that his arrangements are mostly of famous pieces, it seeming "a useless enterprise" to arrange music unknown to the general public--with the exception of No. 4, where he found it "irresistible" to arrange two etudes of Alkan. His program notes tell us that some of his Etudes have been extensively revised and one (an arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee) has been replaced by "a much better piece," a "Triple Etude (after Chopin)," which attempts the same feat as a "lost" etude by Leopold Godowsky: to combine three Chopin Etudes in one coherent piece.

I won't attempt to comment on each Hamelin Etude, but will single out a few favorites. No. 3, "after Paganini-Liszt," is a spectacular "updating" of Paganini's La Campanella, with a nod to Liszt's own version (from a set of six Paganini Etudes). It's extremely playful (beginning with a deceptively simple opening) and almost outrageously virtuosic. No. 4, after Alkan, is a fleet-fingered perpetual-motion piece, and No. 5 is a "Toccata grottesca" on what we might call a "mystery" theme: "Understandably" [but not to this reviewer], I don't wish to reveal the identity of the original, and I am interested to know how skillful I was in masking the source of my inspiration, [which is] not a terribly well-known work." I can only say that some early moments brought to my mind the finale of Schumann's Kreisleriana, while the second half has moments that strongly evoke the last movement of Gershwin's Piano Concerto, and near the end we hear an off-key rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (Mozart's "Ah vous dirai-je maman"), but this is probably a red herring. In any case, as a "grotesque touch-piece" (to translate the title literally) it's quite dazzling.

I liked as well the buoyant homage to Domenico Scarlatti (No. 5) and the flamboyant and (to use Hamelin's word) "mischievous" rendition of Rossini's very familiar song "La danza" (No. 9). The Minuetto (No. 11) comes as a refreshingly calm contrast to the others (though there are plenty of cascading notes here too), and No. 12 is relatively somber in its Prelude and reminiscent of Busoni (as the composer acknowledges) in its grandiose tarantella-like Fugue (No. 12).

The "Little Nocturne," which Hamelin likes to use as an encore piece, is gentle but a bit astringent compared to the more perfumed nocturnes of Romantic composers. As for Con intimissimo sentimento (a title that sounds like a musical direction: With the Most Intimate Feeling), it is a group of seven pieces, written 1986-2000, that could be played as a set or individually; here Hamelin offers five. All of them are relatively relaxed compared to the Etudes. I found "Music Box" to be the most striking — it does indeed sound like the tinkling of a ghostly music box with an eerie melody. And indeed, the "Berceuse (in tempore belli)" does sound like a "lullaby in a time of war," pathetically hesitant and broken. I liked "After Pergolesi" too, though outside of suggestions of a gavotte rhythm I could hear nothing 18th-century about it; it's like a drier-than-Poulenc treatment of some popular tune.

Finally, the Theme and Variations (2007) is a love poem to the composer's fiancée Cathy Fuller. The Theme is to be played "with simplicity, elegance and tenderness," an excellent description of both the music and the performance. The four Variations and a gentle Envoi to conclude rather than a restatement of the Theme are all highly pleasing, and a familiar fragment of Beethoven's Op. 109 Sonata in E major (a favorite of the fiancée) weaves itself effortlessly into the fabric of the Third Variation.

Hyperion provides warmly realistic piano sound with the combined clarity and forcefulness that such extravagant music demands. Numbers 9 and 10 of the Etudes were recorded in 1998 and released on a Hyperion CD of Hamelin playing The Composer-Pianists [CDA67050], but I don't hear an appreciable inferiority in sound compared to the rest of the CD. The older disc also included an earlier version of the Prelude and Fugue, but "changes and improvements" in the newly recorded piece have made the previous version "obsolete," according to its creator.





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