RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
‘He shows himself a virtuoso in a deeper sense, a virtuoso in sound, colour and poetic empathy’
Bryce Morrison marvels at the depth and variety of Marc-André Hamelin’s many-sided virtuosity
Janáček . Schumann Janáček On an Overgrown Path, Book 1 Schumann Kinderszenen, Op 15. Waldszenen, Op 82 Marc-André Hamelin pf Hyperion F CDA68030 (74’ • DDD)
Marc-André Hamelin’s normally genial features cloud at the description of him as a ‘super virtuoso’. For him such apparent praise implies limitation rather than virtue. But here, in his latest disc of music by Janá∂ek and Schumann, he shows himself a virtuoso in a deeper sense, a virtuoso in sound, colour and poetic empathy, one who, to quote Liszt, ‘breathes the breath of life’. Using his prodigious command in music of a transcendental difficulty – the ChopinGodowsky Etudes, the major works of Alkan, Albéniz’s Iberia, etc – he displays gifts which show him as first and foremost a musician’s musician. In music of an elusive rather than flamboyant challenge he is a master of simplicity, of music which, in Goethe’s words, proves that it is when working within limits that man creates his greatest work. The fewer the notes, the more subtle and exposed the task. Certainly you could never align Hamelin with, say, Horowitz’s teasing,
lavishly tinted sophistication or Cziffra’s hysterical bravura. He is a virtuoso in another sense.
Linking Janá∂ek and Schumann is both a natural and an enterprising choice. The seeds of Schumann’s final collapse are already present in Waldszenen’s ‘Verrufene Stelle’ (‘Place of evil fame’, where flowers are nourished by human blood rather than the sun’s rays) or in ‘Fürchtenmachen’ (‘Frightening’) from Kinderszenen. Such things lead to a more oblique sense of desolation in Janá∂ek’s On an Overgrown Path, the very title evocative of the past, of a time long eclipsed by bitter adult experience; reflections of despair rather than tranquillity. Janá∂ek’s failed marriage, his unrequited passion for a younger woman and the death of his daughter Olga at the age of 20 are all mirrored in music of the darkest introspection. Of On an Overgrown Path, Janá∂ek wrote ‘they are of all things most dear to me’, as if he cradled his own unhappiness. How else can you explain titles such as ‘Unutterable Anguish’ and ‘In Tears’? Such tortured music was predictably greeted with incomprehension; and, like Liszt before him (the titles of his later darkhued utterances, ‘Nuages gris’, ‘Unstern’ or
‘La lugubre gondola’ tell their own tale) or Fauré after him, his profoundest creations were ignored, causing him serious doubts. Thus, he wrote, ‘I no longer saw any worth in my work and scarcely believed what I said. I had become convinced that no one would notice anything.’ Admirably described (by the Janá∂ek scholar John Tyrrell) as ‘some of the profoundest, most disturbing music that Janá∂ek had written, their interest is quite out of proportion to their modest means and ambition’. Again, these are pieces ‘which begin disarmingly but are emotionally derailed within the briefest of spans’.
Hamelin’s subtle inflection captures all of the opening ‘Our Evenings’, his nuance and musical breathing somehow beyond such an academic term as rubato, the sudden disruptions like flashes of anger flawlessly contrasted. Time and again he makes you think vocally, of the range and flexibility of a great singer. Hear him drop from mezzo‑forte to pianissimo despondency in ‘A Blown-Away Leaf’, a retreat as it were from Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. He is no less sensitive to the polka of ‘Come With Us!’, a brief memory of Moravian folk dance and happier times. Again, it would be difficult to imagine a
16 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2014
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