Hamelin the virtuoso pianist takes it easy in Bordeaux

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. 10.12.2014

Canadian-born virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin, looking relaxed and happy about his debut in Bordeaux this week, took time out between rehearsals at the city’s new concert hall, l’Auditorium, to talk about his past and what is coming next.

He will perform the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 under the direction of his friend Paul Daniel, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. 

Bordeaux is the last engagement on a two-week tour that took him to Munich, Moscow and Lucerne. At the end of this week he will stop the world and get off until Jan. 10 when he resumes his hectic schedule in Portland, Oregon.

Hamelin, one of the most respected virtuoso pianists playing today, has recorded 55 CDs for Hyperion and will bring out three more in 2014. Yet he remains little known in France. His CDs are hard to find, and only last April did he appear at his first major Paris venue, le Théâtre des Champs Elysées -- at age 52.

Now the French seem to be recognizing the error of their ways. The two leading French classical music magazines, Diapason and Classica, have selected his Hyperion three-CD box of Busoni’s late piano works as their piano disc of the year.

In a two-part interview, I asked Hamelin to look back at his early years, when he was active in contemporary avant-garde music, and to reflect on today’s piano world.

Marc-André Hamelin
by the author, Michael Johnson

JOHNSON: You have the reputation of uncovering little-known music for some of your CDs and performances. What have you turned up lately?

HAMELIN: I feel a little funny about mentioning discoveries because often there are already some recordings out there from the past. I can perhaps refresh some things, or stir the soup with a new version.

JOHNSON: You mean your interpretations?

HAMELIN: Interpretation is a big word. What I try to do is channel these pieces as I think they should be done, not impose a personal vision. Of course a little bit of my personality will show but hopefully will not stick out too much. That’s not my aim. My aim is to make the composer shine. 

JOHNSON: What might one listen for in your Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4.

HAMELIN: Listen for my cadenza. It is one of about 40 cadenzas that have been written for that concerto. In fact cadenza-collecting has become a subset of interests for score collectors. 

JOHNSON: Does contemporary music attract you? Your recordings seem to lean toward the traditional.

HAMELIN:  Thanks to my father who had a good selection of scores, I was familiar with traditional repertoire at an early age, so my next step (as a young pianist) was composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez, Schoenberg and John Cage. I’m still involved with that period. I played last year in the Cage Centennial event in Miami under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. I even did the famous 4’33” piece. At one point I was walking across the stage whistling Satie.  Among others involved were Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara and Jessye Norman. It was a lot of fun.

JOHNSON: I am told Morton Feldman will be on your mind next year as well. 

HAMELIN: Yes, Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus was supposed to be done in June but I decided to delay it so I could take a break. I have played it once in Toronto and once in San Francisco – in a private house on a very old Steinway to an audience of 30. It will probably be recorded next year.

JOHNSON: To pursue the Feldman genre almost seems you are being cast against type. Your reputation rests on virtuosity, does it not? 

HAMELIN: I don’t know. I’m attracted to extremes. I played Schubert B-flat in Munich, and it was one of the greatest musical experiences I have ever had.

JOHNSON: Yet your discography does not include music from living composers. 

HAMELIN: No, going back to contemporary music would be almost like a fulltime dedication for me. I don’t just want to do it selectively. Something like Feldman was different. When I sat down to read For Bunita Marcus I was thunderstruck. It’s a self-contained universe. As you’re playing, it becomes obvious nothing else beyond it even exists. To be able to create this is quite miraculous.

JOHNSON: Are audiences coming around? 

HAMELIN: People respond to it differently. I warned one friend he might not like Feldman. After a few minutes he got out his cellphone out and started reading The Economist on it.

JOHNSON: People will walk out of performances, no?

HAMELIN: It’s hard to walk out on Feldman. He’s so quiet. No, people generally stay. When I played it in Toronto, there were maybe two coughs in 70 minutes. Nobody left the hall.

JOHNSON: You complained in a Clavier Companion interview that young players are guilty of histrionics at the keyboard. If this is a trend, how can a controlled player like you compete?

HAMELIN: I often wonder … I must bore some people because I don’t move when I play. My contention is that people should come to concerts to listen, not to watch. I can assure you that you will not learn anything by watching me. When I watch myself on video, there’s a disconnect between what I see and what I felt at the time. It always looks effortless, like I’m just brushing the keys, but there is force at work, a lot of force. 

JOHNSON: What CDs are in the pipeline for next year?

HAMELIN: The recording and editing have been completed for Leo Ornstein Quintet with the Pacifica Quartet and another of Shostakovich with Takacs Quartet. A third will be of Mozart piano sonatas.

Part Two of this interview is available here.

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