Music Review: Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin performs epic program at Smith College in Northampton

Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014
Marc-André Hamelin, the distinguished Canadian pianist and composer, played at Smith College Jan. 24, when the Music in Deerfield series resumed. The program was challenging for the pianist and his audience, which included many children. Hamelin began with a barcarolle composed by himself in 2012. A barcarolle is usually associated with Venetian boatmen and the music for the left hand is sometimes compared with the rocking movement of a boat. Hamelin’s composition began this way, but developed differently, exploring the highest and lowest extremes of the piano’s compass. This was a peaceful introduction, in preparation for the stormy music that was to follow.

The central part of the recital was devoted to the immense “Night Wind” sonata of Nikolai Medtner, composed in 1911, when Medtner was in his early 30s. Medtner (who composed 14 piano sonatas) described it as being “in an epic spirit,” an understatement. It is complex, long (requiring 35 minutes to perform), at times violent or peaceful, and to play it from memory, as Hamelin did, was a considerable achievement.

Its title, “Night Wind,” refers to a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev written in 1832, which begins, “Why do you howl, night wind?,” and ends “do not wake the sleeping storms — Chaos writhes beneath them!” These lines match the intensity of the music, which is of such difficulty that few amateur players could attempt it. Hamelin’s virtuosity was on full display as the sonata unfolded from its fortissimo opening to its quiet ending.

He was heard by an exceptionally attentive audience, a tribute to his expressive and brilliant playing. Medtner frequently wrote special instructions in Italian to be sure that his pent up emotions would be properly expressed: at least eight of the Italian words do not occur in other composers’ music, such as sdegnoso (angrily) and vertiginoso (dizzily).

It was unfortunate that the music woke up a bat, which flew over the audience in diminishing circles and spoiled the beautiful last minutes of the sonata, when Medtner repeated the opening theme with ingenious variations. (A member of the Sage Hall staff, James Littles, skillfully removed the bat during the intermission and released it in a warm place elsewhere in the building.)

The last part of the program was devoted to Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 142, a special delight for those who had heard Simone Dinnerstein play Schubert’s other set if Impromptus (Op. 90) two years ago. Hamelin played them with clarity and sensitivity. Since two of the four were familiar to many in the audience (and no doubt played by many), his performance was a lesson in perfect attention to Schubert’s expressed instructions and a beautiful end to the program.

Pianist Menachem Pressler once said (after a performance at Tanglewood by the Beaux Arts trio), “How can there be an encore after Schubert?” Clearly Hamelin agreed, exhausted, too, by the Medtner sonata.

It is worthwhile listening to Medtner’s “Night Wind” sonata on YouTube, where the performance by Geoffrey Tozer, is accompanied by the printed music. From this the true measure of Hamelin’s virtuosity can be appreciated.