No narcissistic facial expressions feigning emotional involvement. No tossing backward of the head. No melodramatic posturing of the arms and hands.
Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin avoided all the obvious showman tactics in his recital at Winona’s Minnesota Beethoven Festival on Tuesday evening. With Hamelin, what you get is different — a sober-suited, professorial demeanor at the keyboard, with a riveting focus on the music.
At the heart of Hamelin’s program was Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, a work played so frequently that pianists must despair of finding something fresh to say about it. But Hamelin’s performance was totally compelling, without the perverse distortions that pianists can resort to when playing music that suffers from overfamiliarity.
In Hamelin’s hands, the “Appassionata” sounded new-minted and vital. He has the rare ability to sound like he is improvising music on the spot, like the ink is still drying on the composer's manuscript. The explosive contrasts of dynamic in the opening movement had the shock of the new about them, forcefully suggesting a composer searching out new possibilities of emotional expression.
In the calmer middle movement, Hamelin again conjured an improvisational feeling, suggesting the organic emergence of each new variation from the last.
The finale was a raging thunderstorm of keyboard virtuosity — few pianists match Hamelin for technical brilliance. And by the furious coda, the Steinway was boiling over with Hamelin’s accumulated layerings of tone and texture.
Before the Beethoven came two novelties. Russian musician Samuel Feinberg is nowadays remembered mainly as a great teacher, but Hamelin’s inclusion of his First and Fourth Piano Sonatas was a reminder that Feinberg composed more than tolerably well. Both works were short — about eight minutes — and blended strokes of Scriabin-like harmonic experiment with washes of Rachmaninoff’s lyricism.
Hamelin’s ability to use his left hand just as expressively as his right was crucial to clarifying the intricately woven fabric of Feinberg’s writing. Hamelin will be recording both sonatas soon, and that album will be worth hearing.
The recital closed with Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata, its 30-minute, single-movement structure placing extreme demands upon the player’s stamina and concentration. These were commandingly negotiated in Hamelin’s absorbing, powerful interpretation.
The opening bars, where a brooding sequence of notes descends into the bass part of the piano, were tensely evocative. And there was poetic playing in the sonata’s introspective moments.
Slight rhythmic glitches threatened to dissipate the tension as the fugal episode gathered momentum. But these were small blemishes in an account that consistently thrilled.
For an encore, Hamelin wheeled out his own devilishly demanding piece “Toccata on L’Homme Armé,” lighting pianistic fireworks on a popular tune from medieval France, sending sparks in all directions. As the audience roared approval, the tireless, unruffled Hamelin took a modest bow, looking as if he could easily have played the whole recital over again.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.