There is really very little that Marc-André Hamelin can’t or won’t do on or with a piano and he did most of it in this characteristically supersonic recital – including one wholesale assault on the Wigmore Steinway’s bottom octave with his fists. You can blame Villa-Lobos for that. Risky if you’ve just played Stockhausen and are about to play Liszt but doubtless piano technicians will have administered first aid during the interval – and attended to the piano as well.
So where did Joseph Haydn fit into this exotic confection? Well, it almost goes without saying that he provided the appetizer, his Sonata in E minor showing the side of Hamelin’s keyboard personality that is rarely discussed leave alone celebrated: his elegance. Both hands are capable of extraordinary agility but it was the left that kept the Haydn grounded and rejoiced in its often undervalued robustness.
Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX is not exactly a regular visitor to recital programmes – and more’s the pity. A certain notoriety exists over the obsessive reiteration of one all-pervasive chord – a study in acoustic response or the infinite variety of sameness – and indeed one might regard this piece as anti-virtuosic since unevenness of delivery (the slightest variations in weighting and emphasis) is what gives it its fascination. Hamelin revealed much beauty and mystery in its unfolding not least the poetry of harmonic overtones arising from extravagant deployment of the sustaining pedal and in the final pages a startling departure to the uppermost octave of the piano where chords disintegrated like fractured icicles.
Then came the Villa-Lobos. And perhaps the most shocking thing about Rudepoema is that it was conceived as both a tribute and a portrait of the gentle and patrician Artur Rubinstein. Beauty, of course, is in the eye and/or ear of the beholder and what passes as character assassination to some may be regarded by others (as it plainly was to Villa-Lobos) as a study in one man’s redoubtable spirit. Suffice it so say that Hamelin’s paint-stripping virtuosity rejoiced and then some in the work’s gaudy primitivism. And the Steinway survived the blunt force trauma with the tumultuous Liszt Sonata in B minor still in prospect.
Paradoxically it was less Hamelin’s seismic imperative, his rhythmic keenness (lapsing only in the work’s climactic assault) that one took one’s breath away but the subtlety of rubatos sensitively nursed, limpid phrases exquisitely turned, and the most prayerful quietudes. Their inwardness resounded. And the rest was silence.