7 years ago

Volume 21 Issue 4 - December 2015/January 2016

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What's a vinyl renaissance? What happens when Handel's Messiah runs afoul of the rumba rhythm setting on a (gasp!) Hammond organ? What work does Marc-Andre Hamelin say he would be content to have on every recital program he plays? What are Steve Wallace's favourite fifty Christmas recordings? Why is violinist Daniel Hope celebrating Yehudi Menuhin's 100th birthday at Koerner Hall January 28? Answers to all these questions (and a whole lot more) in the Dec/Jan issue of The WholeNote.

“The Score Is Still My

“The Score Is Still My Ideal” Marc-André Hamelin In Conversation FRAN KAUFMAN PAUL ENNIS Marc-André Hamelin had just come in from a walk when he answered his phone. I had called him mid-November in advance of his Music Toronto recital next January 5. “It’s my first concert of the year, actually,” he said. I opened our conversation by congratulating him on his recent inclusion in the Gramophone magazine Hall of Fame, a group of 25 pianists that ranges from legends like Rachmaninov, Richter, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Gould and Lipatti to contemporaries such as Argerich, Pollini, Perahia, Uchida, Hough and Schiff. I asked whether he feels a kinship with any particular pianist, living or dead. “I grew up listening to the great pianists of the past, historical recordings,” he answered, before moving into an explanation of his influences in a nutshell. “If there’s any heritage to what I do, any sort of influence or maybe source for a lot of what I have done, you’d have to look for it there. However, this is what I was exposed to at the very beginning due to my dad and those were his listening preferences. But later on I became much more aware and much more respectful of the written note. So I think that what I do today is sort of a happy mix of the two. Or let’s say a judicious use of all these elements, of both of these aspects.” Not since Glenn Gould has a Canadian pianist had such a global impact as Marc-André Hamelin. Just as Gould’s interpretation of Bach revolutionized the way we heard his music, Hamelin made musical sense of late 19th and early 20th century pianist-composer romantic music so fiendishly difficult it had seemed lost until he unearthed it. As the years passed, Hamelin’s repertoire has broadened to embrace more traditional repertoire. I wanted to know what considerations went into programming the January concert, which consists of a late Mozart sonata (K576), Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude and Venezia e Napoli and Schubert’s last sonata (D960). “Well,” he said, seizing on the sonata. “The Schubert B Flat is an easy one. I could play it in every single concert till the day I die. I wouldn’t be unhappy.” I reminded him of a 2009 interview with Clavier Companion where he spoke about having played the sonata already in public for nine or ten years, yet still found wonderful things in it. He had said that the piece was so fresh he doubted he would ever tire of it, even if he could include it in all of his recitals. “That’s true,” he laughed. “I’m glad things haven’t changed, because it just shows you the power of that particular work.” When I tried to get him to account for his attraction to it, he was surprisingly forthright. “It’s one of those pieces with which I’d rather have it remain a mystery. Because the more words you try to put to it, the more difficult it becomes to know exactly what it is that attracts me to it so much. I feel exactly the same way about the last three Beethoven sonatas. Which I’ve played quite a bit as well.” Not only that, I reminded him, but he had performed Schubert’s glorious final sonata in his Koerner Hall recital earlier this year in March, persuasively venturing into the Schubertian sound world using an unflinching romantic approach. “Aha! Not only that,” he repeated. “But I also played it many years ago in, I think, Walter Hall, to inaugurate a new piano. So it will be my third performance of it in Toronto. I hope people won’t get sick of my performance.” But then his memory deepened: “Oh, I also played it in North York. That, as you can imagine, was quite a few years ago. I remember because Tamara Bernstein reviewed it very favourably.” It was the one time he played the George Weston Recital Hall. I told him I was curious about what drew him to certain pieces, “Thinking about the music is at least as valuable as practising at your instrument.” and he was careful to give a balanced response: “If I say that I’m attracted to involved harmonies and dense textures, I don’t want to exclude the fact that I like very simple textures and simple harmonies as well. I’m attracted equally to something like the music of Franck or Busoni, or something like that, which can be really rather thorny and harmonically involved, but I also love the pieces from the collection of On the Overgrown Path of Janáček which have very few notes indeed but still express worlds of emotions. So basically, I guess it amounts to what is expressed and not necessarily how it is expressed. Human emotions have been the same throughout man’s history; it’s only the ways of expressing it – the language, musically speaking, I mean – that has changed and of course, evolved a great deal.” Later, listening to the Janáček on his 2014 Hyperion recording of it, I was struck by the emotional richness his playing conveys. For the most part, the music may be simple and subdued but there are sudden bursts of power that he unleashes in a storm of notes in Our Evenings, the first movement. Moving along the path, as it were, a brooding Slavic interlude mixes moods and colours in They chattered like swallows, lingering tantalizingly. The quiet contemplative beauty of Good night leads into the dark, angular world of Unutterable anguish before reaching the sublime essence of melodic purity with In Tears. I asked how Hamelin goes about learning a new piece. He answered by detailing what he doesn’t do, that is, use recordings. He prefers to go directly to “what the composer is asking,” which is the score. Imperfect as that may be as a vehicle for their thoughts, he believes it’s the only way composers have of communicating their pieces. “I won’t necessarily interpret everything that’s on the page. I will try to rationalize: If, for example, there’s a miscalculation or if they didn’t express exactly what they wanted. I’m a composer myself and that has enabled me, and I’m sure, other composer-interpreters could say the same thing. It has enabled me to feel a little closer to the creators of the works I perform because I know a little bit more how they felt at the moment of creation and what the task is of trying to notate your intangible thoughts into a system of notation that is open to interpretation.” When I asked whether Hamelin finds thinking about a piece away from the piano to be a valuable learning tool, I was hoping to strike a chord, but the answer was far more detailed than I could have imagined. And remarkably timely: “Absolutely. I experienced it just a few minutes ago when I was taking a walk before you called. I was thinking about something that I’m working on right now. And because I’m not busy producing the sound at the piano I can think about the music in a more pure way. And I can get a little more effectively to the essence of the music. And plenty of things will suggest themselves – little emphases – I mean, a counterpoint will jut out for example, tempi will be a little bit more right if I’m just thinking purely about the music. Architectural things will become clearer. Textural things will become clearer. A whole host of practice can be done away from the piano. That’s generally not something that is really well known. 14 | December 1 2015 - February 7, 2016

Marc-André Hamelin “Most parents think that once their kids have accomplished their two hours at the piano that’s it, they don’t have to do anything else. But thinking about the music is at least as valuable as practising at your instrument. Because after all, you’re doing this not to impress the populace, you’re doing this to learn how to communicate a message. And you have to know what message to communicate. You have to have something to say.” I started to ask about Hamelin’s close relationship with his father but before I could finish my question Hamelin interrupted to say, “You know, he actually died 20 years ago today, as a parenthesis, November 17, ’95.” Hamelin agreed that he was lucky to have had a father like that, who, although a pharmacist by profession, was a gifted amateur pianist, whose talent as his son quickly put it, “came out of absolutely nowhere because his parents weren’t musical.” I had read somewhere that his father was his first teacher. “In a sense,” he said. “My first official teacher was a local lady who I had for four years after which my dad enrolled me in Vincent d’Indy School. But essentially I have started to list my dad as one of my teachers simply because he oversaw a lot of my development. I could always talk to him and ask him things. And he offered suggestions. When he didn’t like what he heard, he said so.” Hamelin agreed that his father, with his penchant for composerpianists, and his recordings, which he played all the time, had a considerable influence on his musical taste as a child. It was hard to get recordings and sheet music in those days when “Canada was still a little bit of a cultural desert.” He told me that at the time his father was very intrigued by Leopold Godowsky’s music but it was very difficult to get, almost nothing was available, “and now it’s all available with a few clicks because it’s on IMSLP [].” From listening to his father’s record collection Hamelin “definitely got a sense, predominantly, of a great and sometimes excessive interpretive freedom.” “You know,” he added, “at the time, musicology wasn’t really the science that it is today. Back then true respect for the printed note still had a long way to come. So I grew up with the sentiment that one could do with the music as one pleased [he laughs], which isn’t too good if you’re playing things like Beethoven or Bach or Chopin or Mozart. But later on [after he emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 to study with Harvey Wedeen at Temple University] playing with other people and also with my teacher’s influence, I got to respect the printed score a lot more. And also the fact that I write music myself gets me to appreciate a lot more the toil and trouble composers go through.” Charles Ives’ first teacher was his father. Among other exercises, he would play a song on the piano and have his young son sing it in a totally different key. So I found it fascinating that Hamelin, with his December 1 2015 - February 7, 2016 | 15

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