Editor's note: In Auxiliary Input, which debuted in February, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.
For this third edition, Anderson explores recordings of composer and pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who is both the commissioned composer and a juror in the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition’s practice of requiring the performance of a new work commissioned especially for the competition has always produced in me the same alternation of hope and disappointment that the Pulitzer Prize for Music has: I eagerly await the announcement of the next one, and I descend into a good quarter-hour’s depression after either (a) learning who the composer is, or (b) hearing the work itself. 1989 was a great year for the Cliburn (b), when my delight at learning that William Schuman was to be the composer went sour on hearing that the new work was yet another “Chester”-based potboiler from the guy whose third symphony had rocked my very existence a few years earlier.
The upcoming 2017 Cliburn might be different, though. There’s a new wrinkle, at least: it’s the first time that the composer of the new work will serve also as a juror for the competition. The dude in question is Canadian-born pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin, and the 30 contestants are presumably working on his piece by now, but since details about his piece are still scarce, let’s register our impatience by judging Hamelin the composer by some of his works that are easier to get our hands on.
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Released September 2010
Hyperion’s 2010 release of Hamelin’s Études (available here) seems a likely place to gain a sense of his musical language and what it might produce for the Cliburn fortnight. This disc includes his Twelve Études in All the Minor Keys, Little Nocturne, Con intimissimo sentimento (selections), and Theme and Variations, “Cathy’s Variations.” And it’s Hamelin playing them, so we can dispense with questions of the performer’s interpretive adequacy, I think.
Most of the Études (and the 12 were written over a 25-year stretch) are fun, and you might even call some hilarious—but take that word with a grain of salt, because we’re talking about piano music, here. One of the craziest is his Étude No. 1 in A minor, “Triple Étude, after Chopin,” a terrific stunt composition (actually based on an idea by Leopold Godowsky) that takes two of Chopin’s A minor Études, the Op. 10/2 and the Op. 25/11, and gives them to us simultaneously. And it works!...well, mostly, and that’s hard to beat. Hamelin takes a stab at beating it, though, by at least purporting to introduce a third Chopin A minor Étude, the Op. 25/4. That one is long on accompaniment and short on melody though, so unless you know it really well, you’re likely not to catch it. I know it, and I didn’t catch it.
Several other of Hamelin’s Études take other composers’ works as points of departure. One is a collage of Scarlatti Sonatas (along with plenty of Scarlatti-esque Hamelin). One fattens up a well-known Rossini concert aria. Another reworks the Paganini-Liszt La campanella—and there’s enough Hamelin in there to warrant calling it a bona fide Paganini-Liszt-Hamelin Étude. Then there’s an especially hairy take-off on the Chopin “Black Key” number.
Listening to all 12 of them can be taxing. Hamelin’s legendary talents make it sound like every finger—and there may be more than 10 of them in there—is doing something all the time. And yet everything is differentiated enough from everything else so that it doesn’t simply sound like a roiling cloud of piano. You really get the impression you’re getting it all.
As electrifying as that impression may be, you’ll still wish for a few minutes of more transparent texture. On this recording, you get that in the second half: the Little Nocturne, five pieces from the collection Con intimissimo sentimento, and the Theme and Variations, a love song to Hamelin’s wife. It’s a balanced recording, I guess, but to get that balance, you’d better listen to the whole thing. And if your recording doesn’t include the booklet, as mine didn’t, you can get it here. You’ll find Hamelin very generous with information about the works.
How much this recording tells us about the kinds of things he’s writing now—hence what we should expect from his Cliburn commission—is anyone’s guess. Mine is that it will share more characteristics with the Theme and Variations than with any of the Etudes.
Franck: Piano Quintet; Debussy: String Quartet
Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Takács Quartet
Released June 2016
Since we’re auditioning Mr. Hamelin today, we might as well see how he handles chamber ensemble material. After all, that’s what they do at the Cliburn competition: the finalists choose one from a list of chamber works to perform with a guest group. This time, the group is the Brentano String Quartet, and the works from which the finalists choose are four piano quintets by Brahms, Dvořák, Franck and Schumann. And it just so happens that in June of last year, Hyperion released a recording (available here) of the Takács Quartet playing the Franck Quintet in F minor with Hamelin at the keyboard.
There’s no guarantee that any of the finalists will choose the Franck—they might all choose the same work, who knows?—but this recording certainly illustrates some of the problems they face if they have. There are passages in which the pianist is assigned an accompanimental role with figuration that could easily overpower the rest of the ensemble—it looks like it’s supposed to be loud. In these spots, however, Hamelin’s extraordinary control and delicacy prevent his obscuring the more important lines. At other times, Franck appears to leave volume levels up to the discretion of the players, providing the ensemble further opportunities to either coordinate or blow it. Hamelin and the Takács coordinate well enough, but the recording has the luxury of post-production; not so, the Cliburn Finalists. It will be their taste and musicality on the line in the performance, even more than the Brentano Quartet’s.
And then there’s Franck’s harmonic language, the most easily overlooked challenge in the preparation of this work for performance. The F minor Quintet features the composer’s trademark approach to keys—hexatonic, if you’re keeping score—which shows up here as the keys of F (major and minor), A (major and minor, again) and D-flat (you get the idea). The keys often seem as if they’re being treated equally, partly because using keys that are related this way divides up tonal space equally—at least theoretically. But this scheme tends to undermine the ability of a professed home key (F, here) to sound solidly final at the end. When you divide anything equally, it’s difficult for any of the parts to come off as primary.
How does this work out in the Hamelin/Takács recording? The final measures sound like they’re leading into another harmonic digression. When they don’t—when the music just stops on a slightly giddy F—the result sounds very open-ended. It’s lucky that the Quintet is followed immediately on the recording by the Takács Quartet’s performance of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, thanks to a performance that isn’t shy about some of the work’s weirder moments. When the first of these confronts us within five seconds of the first movement’s opening gun, we easily forget any confusion induced by the Franck. The finalists at the Cliburn will not have this luxury, though. They’ll face Franck’s closing paragraph without a Debussy safety net.
Having seen Hamelin the composer-performer and Hamelin the collaborator, perhaps we’ll soon look at Hamelin the esoteric. He’s well-known as a spokesman both for neglected composers of past eras and for more conspicuously neglected moderns. In fact, later this year Hyperion is releasing Hamelin’s recording of Morton Feldman’s next-to-last piano work, For Bunita Marcus (1985). Maybe we’ll soon take a look at that performance as a post-Cliburn digestif.
» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.
» Auxiliary Input will appear on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN AUXILIARY INPUT
- February 2017: A recording by composer Adam Schoenberg; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg
- March 2017: Two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra; and two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz