Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin performs three hands’ worth of French music at the opening concert of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s 2009 Winter Festival, “Paris: Fantasy and Discovery.” He plays Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” and Camille Saint-Saens’ “Africa Fantasy,” a rarely-heard work for orchestra and two-handed pianist. The program includes Francis Poulenc’s ballet music “Les Biches” and Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 (“The Organ Symphony”).
Neeme Jarvi, in his final season as music director of the NJSO, conducts at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Friday, January 9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 11 at 3 p.m., and at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Saturday, January 10, at 8 p.m.
Hamelin was on hand at Jarvi’s first official concert with the NJSO on September 29, 2005, when he also performed a Saint-Saens work, his Piano Concerto No. 2. “I enjoyed working with Jarvi,” Hamelin says. “He has a wonderful rapport with the orchestra, and efficient rehearsal techniques. It’s fresh, authentic communication. I don’t remember spending a lot of time rehearsing the piece because of Jarvi’s skills.”
Jarvi conducts the second batch of NJSO winter festival concerts the weekend of January 16, including a performance at New Brunswick’s State Theater. His son, Kristjan Jarvi, is on the podium for the third batch of concerts, the weekend of January 23.
In a telephone interview from his Boston home, Hamelin talks about the two pieces he plays in the first set of concerts. Focusing on Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand,” written in 1929-30 for Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after injuries sustained during World War I, Hamelin says, “There are very few pieces written for right hand alone. The left hand yields more interesting results. The right hand is not designed to handle both melody and harmony at same time; the left hand’s structure can handle accompaniment naturally at the pinky end of the hand, while the thumb end plays the melody.”
Hamelin does not help his left hand by taking any of the piece’s notes with his capable right hand. “It doesn’t even occur to me,” he says. “The interesting challenge is to make one hand sound like two. Right after the opening solo cadenza there’s a quiet, rhapsodic section where that’s especially important. I’ll show you.”
Hamelin holds the phone with one hand, and plays with the other. I observe that the music sounds, indeed, like two hands with distinct characters, joined together with much tastefully-applied pedal. “Pedal control and the weight of almost every note are crucial,” he says. “The only thing that’s not pleasant for the piano is the thick orchestration of the piece. It’s hard for the piano to hold its own against the orchestra. Ravel’s concerto for two hands has lighter orchestration. It’s a little unfair.”
Turning to Saint Saens’ “Africa Fantasy,” Hamelin calls it “one of the most virtuosic things that Saint-Saens wrote. For those who like that sort of thing, there’s plenty of pyrotechnical display. It’s incredibly fast. Wrist flexibility is needed. There are repeated thirds in both hands.” He tucks the phone to his ear and plays a crisp, flickering passage that scintillates, clean and untouched by pedal. “Display for display’s sake, I have no time for,” he comments.
The piece was originally written for orchestra and piano. Saint-Saens also wrote a solo version of the work, as well as a two-piano version. “I know the solo version,” Hamelin says. “Saint Saens wrote in as much as he could for the solo piano version. It’s overly-difficult as a result. And it’s almost never played. The two-piano version is almost totally forgotten.”
Hamelin has investigated the “Africa” piece thoroughly. “Saint-Saens left a recording of part of the solo version of his ‘Africa Fantasy’ on a 78 record,” he says.” It’s a three-minute Reader’s Digest version. He really rattles through it. You can see how his powers were clear and his technique fresh at age 68.”
The qualities that Hamelin hears in the Saint-Saens disc are reflected in a sampling of his own recordings. His publicist has kindly sent me four CDs that Hamelin recorded on the Hyperion label. Of his roughly 60 recordings, about two-thirds have been for Hyperion. The number of Hamelin pieces that appear on the Hyperion label far exceeds the number of releases. Hyperion seems to be unstinting in stuffing a CD full of music.
“Hyperion’s a terrific label,” says Hamelin. “It’s the most-respected independent label in the world.” Founded in 1980, Hyperion puts out recordings of music from all periods from the 12th century to the 21st. The catalogue currently comprises nearly 1,400 CDs; approximately 80 new titles are issued each year.
My mini-hoard of Hamelin-Hyperion recordings consists of a two-disc set containing 10 (!) sonatas by Franz Joseph Haydn, played with repeats; a disc containing Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” Fantasiestucke,” and “Papillons;” a disc that pairs Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and his Op. 119 pieces for solo piano; and piano pieces by French composers Paul Dukas and Abel Decaux that date from the period where the NJSO draws the repertoire for its upcoming Winter Festival.
“French music from 1870 into the 20th century is a very rich and fruitful period,” Hamelin says. “I have a special fondness for turn of the century French music. It was a time when tonal harmony began to break apart and there were all kinds of experiments.”
On all four Hyperion CDs Hamelin X-rays the architecture of the music with sensitive assurance. His authority is enhanced by his mastery of nuance and subtlety; he commands a cornucopia of gradations between piano and pianissimo or between mezzo forte and forte. He risks lingering too long on the note before the termination of a section, but he proceeds in the nick of time, like an airplane stunt flyer who almost grazes the tree tops. His tempos are fast, except when he chooses to play daringly slow. His clarity is a wonder of frozen passion. He reveals the secrets hidden in the left hand.
Hamelin was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1961. His father, Gilles Hamelin, a pharmacist and amateur pianist, who died in 1992, was his first teacher. Marc-Andre began studying piano at age five and his father introduced him early to the works of ethnically diverse composers whose names are hardly household names: Frenchman Charles-Valentin Alkan; Nicolai Medtner, a Russian composer born in Moscow to German parents; and the English composer Kaikhosru Sorabji, son of a Parsi father and a Spanish-Sicilian mother.
Hamelin’s mother, a homemaker, who now lives in a suburb of Montreal, contributed her sensitivity as a listener to his musical upbringing. “It was always astounding how keenly critical she could be without having studied music,” Hamelin says. “She had a keen ear for judging singing tone, touch, and expression.” His older sister played flute and viola in high school.
Hamelin studied at Montreal’s Ecole Vincent d’Indy, associated with the University of Montreal. “My father sometimes disagreed with my teachers. I considered all viewpoints, and made up own mind,” he says.
In 1980 a full-tuition scholarship at Temple University brought Hamelin to Philadelphia. He has lived in Boston since 2006.
“The perception is that I play unfamiliar music,” Hamelin says. He goes on to explain: “My recordings are mostly by unfamiliar composers, but I have always played standard repertoire at concerts. Hyperion approached me when I was an unknown quantity. They wanted me to record unfamiliar music. Now I’m recording more standard repertoire for them.” Hamelin’s next-to-be released CD bulges with a collection of pieces by Frederic Chopin: his Berceuse, Barcarolle, two Nocturnes, and two sonatas. Already released in Asia, it is expected to appear in the United Kingdom this month, and in the United States in February.
Within a year or two Hyperion intends to release a recording of Hamelin playing his own compositions. “Composing is not a prominent activity for me,” Hamelin says. “I make a living from concertizing. I play my own music from time to time, but I don’t feature it at concerts.
“I always had a creative urge,” Hamelin says. “From the beginning I filled up pages of manuscript paper. I was inspired by my dad’s sheet music collection. I wanted to write the same kind of music. I wanted to write grand things. I suspect that my ideas were worthless; I’m sure that my skill at notation was even more worthless.
“Translating ideas into notation is not that easy. Many composers have suffered a great deal trying to put their inspiration on paper. The quality of ideas is difficult to capture in notation, and it’s difficult just getting the idea out of your head. There are many ways to express a musical idea in notation. Every composer uses tempo markings, character markings, and articulation in a different way. It’s your duty as a performer to discover the ideas of a composer about musical notation, and how to express what they want.”
Although Hamelin downplays his activity as a composer, he believes that the act of composing provides essential insights for performers. “Composing has great benefits for interpreters,” he says. It’s very important, if you’re going to go through life interpreting other people’s music, to understand what they felt like at the moment of creation in order not to take their compositions too much for granted.”
Winter Festival, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, State Theater, New Brunswick. Saturday, January 10, 8 p.m. Neeme Jarvi conducts. With pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. Program includes Ravel, Saint-Saens, and Poulenc. Additional performances on Friday and Sunday, January 9 and 11, at NJPAC in Newark. 800-ALLEGRO or www.njsymphony.org.