“A thinking man’s virtuoso and virtuosity is his main hallmark.”—The Washington Post
For his only solo recital in New York this season, Marc-André Hamelin honors the rich tradition of the pianist-composer with a program of works by composers who had great success at the keyboard.
Franz Liszt may be the most iconic pianist-composer of all, and Hamelin is a Liszt specialist, playing his often fiendishly difficult music with astonishing ease. Hamelin also thrives on reviving the unjustly obscure, so he opens with music of the Irish Romantic John Field. And Hamelin himself continues the composer-pianist tradition, presenting his Chaconne (inspired naturally by Bach’s Chaconne) to New York for the first time.
Exclusive New York Solo Recital
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
FIELD: Andante inédit
HAMELIN: Chaconne (New York premiere)
DEBUSSY: Images, Book II
LISZT: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
LISZT: Venezia e Napoli
This concert is approximately one hour thirty minutes long.
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Marc-André Hamelin performs Debussy: "Feux d'artifice" from Preludes, Book 2
Explore the Music
(Click the names below to expand info.)
JOHN FIELD: Andante inédit, for Piano in E-flat major, H. 64
Born in Dublin, July 26, 1782; died in Moscow, January 23, 1837
Andante inédit, for Piano in E-flat major, H. 64
Published in 1852, 6 minutes
Dublin-born pianist John Field enjoyed a successful career as a performer-composer during the early 19th century. It was only after his death that Field’s reputation blossomed, when his innovations in piano style and genre were recognized and imitated by Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and others.
As a youth, Field studied with Muzio Clementi in London, and he later joined Clementi on performance tours through Europe. While visiting Russia in the summer of 1802, Field decided to settle there semi-permanently. There he developed his signature piano style—an embellished right-hand melody over a rippling left-hand accompaniment—expressed most clearly in the 18 Nocturnes that became his best-known compositions.
Field’s Andante inédit (published posthumously in 1852) is not directly representative of his “nocturne” style, but it is evidence of his Romantic approach to form, harmony and pianism in the piano miniature. Instead of adhering to traditional forms, Field wrote character pieces in which the interest derives from chromatically inflected melody and luxuriant harmony, supported by continuously flowing ostinato patterns in the accompaniment, and all enriched by subtle use of the sustain pedal.
Andante inédit opens with a chordal, songlike theme that forms the basis for subsequent variations—but this is not a classical “theme and variations” piece. The variations flow organically, almost spontaneously, and without contrivance, never venturing too far from the original theme. In the process, though, the melody is occasionally liberated from the accompaniment, achieving a degree of embellished independence. The piece closes with a return to the disarmingly simple hymn-style chords.
© 2015, Luke Howard
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CLAUDE DEBUSSY: Images, Book II
Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, August 22, 1862; died in Paris, March 25, 1918
Images, Book II
Composed in 1907; 13 minutes
At the end of the 19th century, when French music was beginning to assert itself after 150 years of Austro-German domination, Claude Debussy developed a thoroughly French style of keyboard composition that favored timbre and texture over form and structure. His harmonies were fluid and ambiguous, employing parallel motion, unresolved dissonances and free modulation. It was a new language, one that ensured both the composer’s immediate popularity and future reputation.
The early 1900s were mostly happy years for Debussy. He called it his “time of spring,” just before artistic success tipped over into full-blown fame. It was during this period, in 1905, that he published a series of three short piano pieces gathered under the title of Images. Two years later Debussy wrote a second set of Images with similarly evocative titles and vivid pianism.
This second set of Images opens with Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells Through the Leaves), a reflection inspired by the layered textures of the Javanese gamelan that Debussy had heard at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. He may also have been thinking of a passage in a letter penned by his friend and biographer Louis Laloy that describes the sound of a church bell “crossing, from village to village, through the golden forests in the silence of the evening.” Debussy wrote this work on three staves instead of the traditional two, keeping the layers of texture, rhythm and harmony visually distinct while they blend acoustically in a complex counterpoint.
Laloy’s presence is more overt in the second piece, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the Moon Sets over the Temple That Was), which is dedicated to him. This work evokes the poetics, nostalgia and mystery of an ancient and exotic ruin bathed in moonlight. Through fragmentary melodies and floating, mysterious harmonies, Debussy creates a dreamscape redolent of the Symbolists’ fascination with “the inexpressible.”
The imagery is more tangible, though, in Poissons d’or (Goldfish). Thought to have been inspired by a Japanese lacquer panel that hung in Debussy’s office, the work blends images of darting fins, bright colors and flashes of reflected sunlight into a bravura finale that matches extrovert pianism with the musical metaphors of impressionism.
© 2015, Luke Howard
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MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN: Chaconne
Born in Montreal, September 5, 1961
Composed in 2013; 9 minutes
Marc-Andre Hamelin’s career as a pianist-composer emulates the great 19th-century keyboard masters whose works he has consistently championed, especially lesser-known virtuosi such as Leopold Godowsky, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Kaikhosru Sorabji. He follows their example in his own compositions, writing works that call for technical pianism of the highest order, combined with a composerly approach to form, motivic development and expression, and occasional (but liberal) doses of wit and whimsy.
Many of Hamelin’s piano compositions employ traditional variation forms. His Chaconne from 2013 continues this emphasis, using the old Baroque technique of continuous variations over a repeating bassline pattern. Here Hamelin fashions the bass line from a musical cryptogram, the letters E-S-C-H (which in German musical letter names represent the notes E, E-flat, C and B). Deriving a musical motto from a name—in this case the work’s dedicatee, Elisabeth Schock—is a time-honored technique that calls to mind Robert Schumann (who used an A-S-C-H subject in his Carnaval) and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose musical “signature” was D-S-C-H. The two sighing half-steps in Hamelin’s E-S-C-H motif also recall some of Bach’s Easter laments.
Hamelin’s Chaconne opens with an unaccompanied statement of this motif, followed by permutations and transpositions that make up an angular 16-measure “theme” in traditional dance rhythms and balanced phrases. The subsequent 16 variations (plus a short coda) then explore pianistic figurations over this bass line through the course of two dramatic crescendos. The first climaxes in a variation that Hamelin marks “saturated, brutal (almost pure noise)” before a sudden pause and a chilly, pianissimo variation of huddled chords. Gradually the textures build again from a single line to two-part counterpoint, richer harmonies and agitated rhythms, culminating in a second great climax. After a long pause, the final variation and coda revert back to simpler textures and multi-layered statements of the original motif.
© 2015, Luke Howard
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FRANZ LISZT: “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude” from Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses
Born in Doborján, Hungary (now Raiding, Austria), October 22, 1811; died in Bayreuth, July 31, 1886
“Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude” from Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses
Composed in 1847; 17 minutes
Franz Liszt was unquestionably the most dazzling piano virtuoso of his age, perhaps of all time. But the Liszt “myth” was even grander still. His seemingly superhuman technique invited comparisons with Paganini and fueled rumors of a pact with the Devil. Liszt’s concert tours attracted female fans who reportedly fainted at his appearance or fought over his gloves, locks of hair or discarded cigar stubs. And driving much of this “Lisztomania” was the belief that the legendary fire of Hungarian blood coursed through Liszt’s veins.
But realizing that the Liszt myth was somewhat embellished doesn’t diminish his pre-eminence. He represents a crucial link between early and late Romanticism, while achieving an accord between the France of Berlioz, Meyerbeer and Chopin, and the post-Beethoven generation of Germanic composers, including Schumann and, later, Wagner. He was the epicenter around which the European music establishment swirled throughout the 19th century. And then there is his own music—passionate, dramatic, deeply literary and at times ferociously difficult to perform.
Liszt took the title of his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses from an 1830 collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine. These poems inspired a piano solo in 1834 that Liszt later included in a suite of ten works assembled under the same title during the late 1840s.
“Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude” (“The Blessing of God in Solitude”) is, despite the seeming finality of its title, only the third piece in the suite. The score is prefaced with a stanza from Lamartine’s poem of the same name, a poem that speaks of seeking peace and wisdom in the world, but finding faith and tranquility only when one is born anew in God.
The work opens with a sumptuous middle-voice melody under a rippling right-hand accompaniment. Gradually the intensity builds to an impassioned climax in which the melody moves into rich right-hand chords before a return of the opening, now embellished with flowing cascades.
Two short, contrasting episodes follow. They function as introspective interludes that set up a reprise of the main theme, this time heard over a fast-flowing arpeggiated accompaniment. As in the opening, the fervor reaches an ecstatic climax before settling back into sparkling, crystalline tranquility. A short coda recalls both of the interior episodes as well as motifs from the main theme, uniting them in an endorsement of the original poem’s intent—an evocation of the divine peace found in seclusion.
© 2015, Luke Howard
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FRANZ LISZT: Venezia E Napoli, Supplement To Années De Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année
Venezia E Napoli, Supplement To Années De Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année
Composed in 1859; 18 minutes
As Liszt toured extensively throughout Europe early in his career, he jotted down numerous short piano compositions that captured impressions from his travels. He later revised and collected some of them into two piano suites that he named Années de pèlerinage or Years of Pilgrimage. The first suite, published in 1855, recalled his experiences in Switzerland. The second, from 1858, evokes scenes from Italy. Nearly 30 years later, in 1883, Liszt gathered seven more pieces together into a third Year of Pilgrimage with no clear geographical theme.
In the interim, he revised an earlier collection titled Venezia e Napoli—three piano pieces loosely based on Venetian and Neapolitan tunes that he had encountered in his Italian travels. These revised works were later published in 1861 as a supplement to the second, “Italian,” year of the Années de pèlerinage.
The first piece, Gondoliera, is based on a popular Venetian song “La biondina in gondoletta” (“The Blonde Girl in the Gondola”). Beethoven had earlier arranged this tune as well, though Liszt’s version is a more gentle, undulating treatment with delicate filigree radiating out from the melody like ripples along a Venetian canal.
The gondolier aria, “Nessun maggior dolore,” from Rossini’s 1816 opera Otello, is dark and pessimistic, with Dante-inspired lyrics that speak of misery and pain. A dramatic opening, underscored by sinister tremolos, introduces the growling melody in the piano’s bass (even though the role of the Gondolier in the opera is sung by a tenor).
High spirits return in the Tarantella, a fantasy on the vigorous dance from southern Italy. It begins in the same dark, tremulous realm as the previous piece, but with a boisterous energy that quickly lifts it from the gloom. Into this lively, virtuosic caprice, Liszt incorporates musical themes by the French composer Guillaume-Louis Cottrau, who spent most of his career in Naples.
© 2015, Luke Howard
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A musician of broad musical interests and curiosity, pianist Marc-André Hamelin is renowned for his unique blend of musicianship and virtuosity. A recurring guest of 92Y since his debut in 2001, Mr. Hamelin is appearing tonight as part of a five-concert North American tour, with additional performances in Oakland, Philadelphia, Princeton and Toronto. He then repeats much of this program in May on a European tour that includes Amsterdam, Copenhagen and the Musik im Riesen Festival in Austria.
Mr. Hamelin began the 2014/15 season with a round of festival recitals, as well as a tour of France with the Orchestre National d’Ile de France, and concertos with the Montreal Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Last month alone he performed with the Oregon and San Francisco symphonies, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivieres of Quebec and the Royal Philharmonic.
Still to come is a tour with the Takacs Quartet, and engagements with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Danish National, New Jersey and Seattle symphonies. This spring he embarks on a ten-concert North American tour with Les Violons du Roy, performing Haydn’s D-major Concerto, from their award-winning CD. Last season San Francisco Performances, London’s Wigmore Hall, Boston’s Celebrity Series and Antwerp’s deSingel each hosted Hamelin celebrations. T Mr. Hamelin records exclusively for Hyperion Records. His latest CD features Debussy’s Images and Preludes II, which was released last November. Last June Hyperion released his recording of Schumann’s Waldszenen and Kinderszenen and Janáček’s “On an Overgrown Path,” which was named the June 2014 album of the month by both Gramophone and BBC Music magazines. Other recent releases include the late piano works of Busoni, which won the 2014 Diapason d’Or and Echo Klassik awards; a solo disc of works by Liszt; and an album of his own compositions, Hamelin: Études, which earned him his ninth Grammy nomination and a first prize from the German Record Critics Association.
Born in Montreal and a resident of Boston, Marc-Andre Hamelin is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the German Record Critics Association. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Quebec, and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. His website is marcandrehamelin.com.
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