Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is a phenomenon; with a series of breathtaking recordings he has established himself as arguably the outstanding virtuoso on the planet, and this latest disc will only go to further that reputation. Hamelin is one of a long line of composer-pianists, some (like Godowsky and Feinberg) pianists who also composed -- mainly works of superhuman difficulty to display their own prowess and make their colleagues cower -- others composers who also performed in public, usually for financial reasons (Rachmaninov and Medtner being good examples). This disc contains a representative sampling of their work, much of it previously unrecorded or at least hard to come by. It also contains music by two of the "reclusive genius" school of composer-pianists: Charles-Valentin Alkan and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, both men who produced works of fiendish technical challenge while cutting themselves off from almost all human and musical contact. Some of the works here show their composers as we expect them: the dark-hued chromaticism of Scriabin, for instance, or the rigorous intellectualism of Busoni. But with others it is a very different story.
Leopold Godowsky -- best-known today for his 53 Etudes on Chopin -- is represented by his Toccata, a work of deceptive gentleness and charm. Alkan, friend of Chopin and reputedly the only person before whom Liszt was nervous, can be heard in three pieces: a straightforward (although doubtless not for the player) transcription of the slow movement from Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony, and two of the Op.63 Esquisses: the elusive and enigmatic Premier Billet Doux and the spectacular Scherzetto.
Samuel Feinberg was a Russian pianist hardly known in the West, although some of his transcriptions have been appearing in recordings -- the march from Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, for instance, on Arcady Volodos's over-rated debut CD. His transcription of the sixth of Bach's Schubler Chorales is a delight, infectious and joyful, whereas his Berceuse is a darker, albeit delicate matter altogether.
Busoni's admiration for Bach is well-known and his Fantasia was composed in just three days in memory of his late father; it weaves together material from three Bach organ works in a harmonic style reminiscent of late Liszt. The result is pure Busoni. Perhaps John Ogdon's recording (Continuum) has a greater sense of the work's indebtedness to Bach, a grander more majestic feel. But Hamelin's more soft-edged, Romantic view of the work is, in my opinion, every bit as convincing.
Few readers are likely to have encountered the music of Sorabji before, although his Opus Clavicembalisticum has for years been featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest non-repetitive piece for solo piano (and even at over four hours in duration it is overshadowed by several of Sorabji's unpublished works). In the 1930s, he imposed what was effectively a ban on all public performances of his music, a ban which was only (gradually) lifted in the 1970s. During all this time Sorabji lived in magnificent isolation, occasionally unleashing musical criticism from his vitriol-dipped pen.
But Sorabji was also capable of working in miniature and of using another composer's music as a springboard; the Pastiche on the Hindu Merchant's Song from 'Sadko' by Rimsky-Korsakov (hell of a title!) is one of three pastiches dating from 1922 (the other two, on the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen and Chopin's Minute Waltz, are both hilarious) and one of the most heavily perfumed, exotic pieces I know.
Finally to Hamelin himself. He is currently engaged in writing a set of a dozen etudes, of which three are here recorded for the first time. No.9, "d'apres Rossini", is a whirlwind of rhythmic vitality and humor (a wonderful "blue" chord, which resolves into the second half of the main melody, and at least a couple of false endings), based on Rossini's familiar La Danza. In No.10, "d'apres Chopin (pour les idees noires)" he out-Godowskys Godowsky by taking Chopin's original study (Op.10, No.5 the "Butterfly" etude) and reworking it in its enharmonic equivalent, from G flat to F sharp. Hamelin's own sobriquet "pour les idees noires" refers to black thoughts rather than simply black keys and sums up the piece's strange, almost sinister manner. Finally No.12, an original prelude and fugue whose expressionistic prelude leads to a fugue, which, according to its composer:
"was never meant to become such a monstrous agglomeration of cruel virtuosic devices; I simply wanted to explore some of the developmental and expansional possibilities of the rather silly and banal fugue subject. Let's just say that it started going, pretty much on its own, in directions I hadn't quite suspected at first."
Hamelin tosses off all the fearful challenges on this disc with terrific aplomb. Not only is he possessed of a frighteningly superhuman technique, he has a strong sense of form and a wonderful touch, capable of a vast spectrum of tonal colors and of shifting from the hypervirtuosic to the unbelievably subtle in an instant. However, if I have given the impression that this is simply another virtuoso showcase, then nothing could be further from my intention. Hamelin is not only a spectacular player, he is a great musician. He is on record as saying that he does not like playing difficult music. I beg to differ; this disc contains some of the most difficult music ever composed for the keyboard, and at no time does he sound as if he is having less than a wonderful time.
Oh yes, he is very well -- if not spectacularly -- recorded. This is certainly one of my favorite recordings of the year.
GO BACK TO: