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Music review: Marc-Andre Hamelin revives Alkan in San Francisco

December 16, 2009 |  4:00 pm
Hamelin

The 19th century French composer and pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan wasn’t always obscure. Liszt and Chopin were impressed by his incredible keyboard virtuosity. Musically far ahead of his time, Alkan, who  anticipated Mahler, influenced Debussy.

Someday evolution or cyber-engineering will catch up with this strange man whose imagination ran wild and whose fingers were superhuman. Then, perhaps, Alkan will finally take his rightful place in the concert hall as one of the greats. But for now, we have Marc-André Hamelin, who ended his recital at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco Tuesday night with a brilliant performance of Alkan’s Symphonie for solo piano. He will repeat the flabbergasting feat Friday in La Jolla, when he appears at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

There are reasons why Alkan hasn’t caught on. He was dotty. He had a nervous disposition and spent much of his life a recluse who seldom set foot from his Parisian apartment. There he devoted himself to Talmudic study and wrote music too difficult for anyone else to play.

For decades Alkan’s music was passed along in a kind of underground network. Ravel knew and loved it; so did Busoni. The legendary Dutch/German pianist Egon Petri was an Alkan enthusiast who turned young American avant-garde composers on to it when he taught across the Bay at Mills College in Oakland in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but he played pieces such as the Symphonie only in private.

A full-scale Alkan revival was picked up in the late ‘60s by record companies hoping to cash in on a psychedelic forerunner. But the pianists who championed Alkan, notably Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith, remained cult figures themselves, and their reputations for flashiness prevented the serious reconsideration of the music that it deserved.

Hamelin is a cult figure too. He has what could be the highest-powered technique of our time, but he is a reserved Canadian. On Tuesday, he came on stage in fashionable dark suit, white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and black T-shirt, looking more like a successful concert agent than a one-of-a-kind concert artist. He sat without undo expression at the keyboard, even as his fingers flew.  

His recital began with commonplace Haydn (Andante and Variations in F minor) and Mozart (Sonata in A minor, K. 310), and his performances were airy. He just played the notes, but his rhythms were so exacting and his touch so subtle that each note seemed to have a life of its own.

The same could be said of Liszt’s “Venezia e Napoli,” which concluded the first half. But this is virtuosic music, and there are many times more notes per square inch of score, which also meant Hamelin’s pianism was taken to another dimension. In the first piece, for instance, a gondolier’s melody floated over the waves and these waves were projected in the kind of high definition that allows you to make out individual droplets of water. The pianist remained cool as a cucumber.

Alkan’s Symphonie, however, tested even Hamelin’s unflappability. The four movements are actually four etudes from the composer’s Opus 39, a set of 12 written in 1847 with each in different minor key. Another grouping constitutes a concerto for solo piano. The 11th etude is a concert overture. The 12th is a set of variations that set new standards for loopiness.

The Symphonie is classic over-the-top Alkan, and Hamelin’s performance was jaw-dropping – all 23 transcendentally eccentric minutes of it. Still, the playing never appeared about the player. Instead, it illuminated a composer’s pungently personal harmonies and enchantingly odd melodies not unlike those of Berlioz (who didn’t appreciate a more macabre competitor). Hamelin stormed and thundered in the first and last movements, and he caught the peculiarly percussive character of a funeral march perfectly. And Hamelin’s bewitching way with Alkan’s mystically calm respites was downright revelatory.

Every so often, though, Hamelin can make too much fuss, which I thought he did with Fauré’s Sixth Nocturne, which preceded Alkan’s Symphonie. In this one occasion, the pianist’s transcendental technique tempted him to excess rather than freed him from it, causing him to create more contrasts than needed.

But that was a small price to pay for the kind of illumination Hamelin brought to the Symphonie. Alkan has finally found his man.

-- Mark Swed

Marc-André Hamelin, MCASD Sherwood Auditorium, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. 8 p.m. (a pre-concert conversation with Hamelin is at 7 p.m.) Friday. $25 to $75. (858) 459-3728 or www.lljms.org.

Photo: Marc-André Hamelin. Credit: Randi Lynn Beach / For The Times.

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