I went to hear Marc-Andre Hamelin at his recent recital in Herbst Theater, which featured works by Berg, Liszt, and Hamelin himself.
The Berg Piano Sonata, Opus 1, and the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor fit well together; the Berg is quite romantic in sound, with intimations that something more jagged is coming, and the Liszt also takes familiar forms and pushes them to emotional extremes. Hamelin of course is a famous virtuoso and his playing is immaculate, clear and powerful and bracing like a high mountain stream. His playing is not demonstrative or showy. I think he is one of those artists for whom intense emotion comes through the expression of form.
There was an odd and disturbing incident at the close of the first half. Hamelin had just barely finished the Liszt sonata, his hands still suspended in air, when some oaf smashed the mood with loud, insistent applause that chased the final sounds of the sonata out of the hall. This idiot continued applauding even though no one else joined in for another minute or two. It was actually physically jarring. I realized both how deeply I had been drawn into the music and how fragile the whole concert-going experience is. What struck me as really weird was that this person was obviously very familiar with the piece, since the applause started the millisecond it ended, when there were no physical signals (lowered hands, slumped shoulders, a turn towards the audience) that it had ended, yet he or she was completely immune to the mood set by the music. And during the intermission of course much talk was about the applause-clod rather than the performance, which was a sad but inevitable reaction, since reactions to the Sonata were mostly interior, varied, and personal, while the applause was a communal violation.
I was so shaken by the weird rudeness that I was kind of surprised when Hamelin stuck to his program and played his own works for us – I thought he might decide we weren’t worthy, especially since the first piece was the world premiere of Theme and Variations (Cathy’s Variations), which Hamelin described in the program as “purely the work of a man in love . . . inspired by my fiancée Cathy Fuller, my true soulmate, who fascinates me more with each passing day.” These words seemed almost shockingly naked to me when I read them in the program before the concert, and made me realize what an interesting virtuoso Hamelin is, because as a performer he seems quite low-key and contained and his extremely deep emotions are enacted purely through sound.
It was a lovely piece and I decided I should get a copy of his recording of his own works. We also had the Variations on a theme of Paganini, and three etudes, Nos. 8, 11, and 12. No. 8 is based on Goethe’s Erlkonig, and though musically distinct from Schubert’s lied that famous setting kind of shadows the piece because that’s how most of us know the poem, so when listening to Hamelin’s version and sorting out the characters our roadmap is not so much Goethe’s words but Goethe’s words as we remember them to Schubert’s music.
For this concert I was in the front row center on the left aisle, so I had a clear view of the pianist’s hands. I know this view is prized, but I’m sometimes a bit indifferent to it: I’m not sure what looking at the hands is really going to tell me. It sometimes seems a bit fetishistic. There’s a documentary (whose name I’ve forgotten) which I saw years ago which shows Picasso creating a painting before our eyes (until he ends up cheerfully saying, “Now I’ve ruined it and it’s no good”), and sure I can watch his hands move the brush but that doesn’t tell me much about why or how he’s deciding to do things a certain way. But I was glad for the view of Hamelin’s hands, because they actually were revealing. Quite a few times I looked at them and they were literally blurs, they were moving so fast. But if I’d shut my eyes I would have heard crystalline sound and control.
That was the first concert in San Francisco Performance’s piano series. Then last Saturday I was at the SF Conservatory of Music for the second in the series, the Bay Area debut of Alexander Melnikov, who played the complete set of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, in one three hour concert, with two brief intermissions.
Melnikov is another restrained virtuoso; with his quiet, almost scholarly and slightly amused demeanor, and his all-black suit and shirt (no tie, but what looked slightly like a Roman collar) – even the handkerchief he used occasionally to dab away the sweat was black – he looked quite sacerdotal. Even the little bald spot on his crown looked like a tonsure.
Three hours sounds like a long time to listen to music by one composer for one instrument, but it flew by. This time the audience was in harmony, with very few disruptions except for the occasional turn of a page in the program or the score (several people were following along with scores). Melnikov is a mostly undemonstrative player to the eye though not the ear. Occasionally he would nod when he wanted the page-turner to turn the page. Towards the end he paused briefly between pieces to shake out his shoulders a bit. Shostakovich’s music is mostly inward (and therefore a more decisive rejection of totalitarianism than many ambiguously sarcastic and bombastic marches), and it is constantly varied and fascinating, an Aladdin’s cave gleaming in the gloom of a November afternoon. Really a magnificent and rare occasion.