Monday, May 20, 2013

Marc-André Hamelin
Chicago Symphony Center
May 19 2013. 3:00pm

•Piano Sonata, Op. 1

•Impromptu No. 2 in F minor, Op. 31
•Barcarolle No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 42

•Gaspard de la Nuit


•Variations on a theme by Paganini

•Prelude from Book 1: Reflets dans l'eau

•Jeux d'eau

•Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to meet and hear one of the most technically stunning pianists of our time. Often called a "supervirtuouso"because of his transcendent technical ability, Marc-Andre Hamelin, if you haven't heard of him, has been creating a name for himself by making short work of the arcane and recondite works by the forgotten composers of history.

In 2000 he released a recording of Leopold Godowsky's thrilling and perilous "Studies on the Chopin Études", 53 of the most staggeringly difficult piano pieces ever put to paper, and in the recording, Mr. Hamelin made them all seem like the sort of child's play that anyone with some spare time on a Sunday afternoon could pull off. Based on what I heard in the recordings (I've heard that record so many times, I could sing them all complete with Hamelin's individual nuances.) in the last 13 interim years, I suspect that Hamelin has gotten perhaps 100% better. I can't know for certain because his music making exists on a plane I don't have the tools to measure.

I'd never heard the Berg sonata before, and I was spell bound by the piece's bewildering beauty and the way it almost casually walked in and out of the world of tonal harmony. Hamelin was masterful in the way he kept us captivated with his emotional generation of tone all the way up to the very last note. He made me wish that there wasn't the convention of clapping after pieces, because after the sonata was over, a hundred years of silence would have been like permission to bask in a century of bliss.

After the conclusion of the Berg, about one-quarter of the audience came in to be seated late, and Mr. Hamelin was left sitting alone on stage, almost ignominiously, while the ushers loudly ushered. It was such a painful reawakening that a quotation by George Benard Shaw forcefully jumped to mind: "Without art, the crudeness of the world would make reality unbearable." Hamelin took us out of reality for 12 and a half minutes, but the world didn't waste a second to pull us back into the room.

After a pregnant silence (without a departure from the stage between the pieces), the first Fauré piece came like…a spray of wondrous colors and sounds that rippled into the air in a way that's probably best left to the visual arts to depict. I was dumbstruck by the quality and number of his touches. Subtleties like these are how I know that this man's limits lie solely in the bounds of his imagination. The second Faure piece was lovely I believe, but it didn't stick with me like the first one, because at that point, Hamelin was already up to two outstanding moments, and my unprepared nervous system couldn't handle much more.

Gaspard was Gaspard. 500,000 notes, 256 colors, and Hamelin covered them all. This is how we know he deserves the title of supervirtuoso: In a world where the virtuosos look at that piece and rank the quality of a performance in terms of percentages (of 500k and 256), Hamelin was beyond all that, and could be heard experimenting with the larger structures of the work as a whole. Men build cities and bridges to cope with the limitations of gravity. Supermen bend the seas and move the continents to suit their vision. I've seen vitruosi. Hamelin is a Supervirtuoso.

After the intermission (where I barely had time to eat a sandwich and catch my breath), he played his own variations, and made the audience laugh with his musical antics. I've heard the piece before when he played it at Chicago Piano Day, so the jokes weren't fresh, but it was still great fun.

I don't need to talk about the rest of the program. What you should do is thank your parents for allowing you to be alive at the present moment, and go out and see Hamelin while he still is. He's 52, but he's in excellent shape, so you're in luck. Buy all his recordings and watch him when you can. End of review.

p.s. He played two encores, Rachmaninoff's g sharp minor prelude, Op. 32/12 and Chopin's Waltz in D flat,  Op. 64/1 with a "modified" ending. The audience went wild.

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