Hamelin shows Bordeaux how it’s done

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 11.12.2014

Canadian-born pianist Marc-André Hamelin kept a Bordeaux audience riveted Wednesday evening (Dec. 10) by his super-sensitive rendering of a familiar warhorse, the Beethoven piano concerto No. 4. Familiar, yes, but Bordeaux had never heard it performed quite so perfectly. Spontaneous applause erupted between movements and was unrestrained at the end.

Hamelin, a U.S. resident for three decades, is rare visitor to France and was making his first appearance in Bordeaux. He graciously took three curtain calls then sat down to add an encore while the orchestra sat in rapt silence. His unusual choice was the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C, K545, the so-called “sonate facile”. Again the Bordeaux Auditorium trembled with applause and hooting. 

Hamelin by the author, Johnson

The French seemed taken by Hamelin’s quiet concentration at the keyboard, intense yet devoid of physical showboating. His light touch on the keys, especially in the allegro moderato first movement, brought out another Hamelin strength – his ability to blend selflessly with whatever ensemble he is working with. The Bordeaux Orchestre National, conducted by British veteran Paul Daniel, never had to fight him for dominance. Hamelin has said he is not on stage to “flex my muscles or prove my manhood”, but to bring music to the audience.

A highlight of Hamelin’s performance was his own cadenza, which gave his interpretation a personal touch. Aside from the cadenza, however, Hamelin is in principle opposed to personalizing his readings of classics. His aim, he says, it to understand what the composer desired, and to deliver that. 

Curiously, the cadenza competition for this concerto has been lively over the years. More than 40 composers have offered their versions, including Brahms, Busoni, Godowsky, Saint-Saëns and Clara Schumann and Rzewski.

Beethoven finished this concerto in 1806, at about the same time he produced his Symphony No. 4 Op. 58. His progressive deafness was upon him but this highly melodic and emotional concerto reveals him at the peak of his powers.

Indeed the concerto was followed on the program by that symphony, which conductor Daniel created with true brio. He led the orchestra in an overtly kinetic style – without a score and without a baton, virtually dancing around in his space before the orchestra.

The program opened with a challenging performance of Brett Dean’s Testament, a contemporary work that set the scene for the two Beethoven works that followed. Dean was inspired by Beethoven’s well-known Testament of Heilingenstadt, which he wrote as he realized he was rapidly going deaf. Dean’s humming strings create an unsettled atmosphere with disruptive cadences that finally erupt in ferocious attacks. The score seems to replicate what Beethoven’s hearing problems were doing to his mind. 

Daniel, a friend and collaborator of the Australian composer, opened the evening with an explanation of the somewhat avant-garde work and how it fit in with the piano concerto and the symphony that followed. Despite the contrasting musical styles, the program all hung together.

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