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Classical Notes

Marc-André Hamelin keeps the faith

Marc-André Hamelin testing one of the Steinways Wednesday at Jordan Hall before his Celebrity Series recital on Sunday.YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF/Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/file

The pianist Marc-André Hamelin once played a piece from Schumann’s “Carnaval” for a friend who was a music lover but “not literate as to the score,” Hamelin said recently from his Boston area home. The piece is called “Chopin” and is often played as a kind of slow reverie, not unlike one of that composer’s nocturnes. When he finished playing it, his friend “thought it was all wrong.”

What his friend wasn’t aware of, Hamelin continued, is that in the score, Schumann calls for the piece to be played “forte” (loud) and “agitato” (restless). “Almost no one plays it like that. But it’s a passionate outburst, not a dreamy wallow,” he said with a slight but unmistakable critical edge.


The story nicely encapsulates something essential about Hamelin, a major artist whose attention to the minute details of scores often brings a fresh viewpoint to well-known works. That focus is his weapon against what he calls “the distortions that have cropped up over time in performing traditions.” All musicians, especially today, claim fealty to the written score, but Hamelin makes good on this pledge in an unusually thoroughgoing way.

Take Schubert’s last piano sonata, in B-flat, to be the last work on a Sunday recital at Jordan Hall that kicks off a three-concert residency with the Celebrity Series of Boston. That piece has around it not only an array of performing conventions but the aura of being a kind of death-haunted, pervasively melancholy final statement. This creates a kind of predisposition that can influence a performer’s approach right from the start.

“I try not to pay too much attention to those things,” said Hamelin. “Again, I go to what the music tells me. It’s always interesting to read criticism and analyses, but when all’s said and done, I’m my own director. I do what the score suggests.”


The Celebrity Series cycle is, astonishingly, one of four multi-concert residencies that Hamelin is curating and playing this season. (The others are in San Francisco, London, and Antwerp, Belgium.) In addition to Sunday’s solo recital, there is an April duo piano concert in which Hamelin will play Brahms’s Third Piano Sonata and then join Emanuel Ax for the same composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor (an early version of the Piano Quintet). Finally, a May trio recital with violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinetist Martin Fröst features a diverse selection of duos and two classic, early-20th-century trios: the suite from Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” and Bartok’s “Contrasts.”

“The first thing that should be obvious is that I’m open to a lot of things,” Hamelin replied when asked what the three concerts, taken together, say about him as a musician. “I take the freedom that is available to any artist very seriously. I just embrace it completely because, if you take the piano literature alone, it’s really immense. And to not avail yourself of as much as you can within a lifetime is kind of unfortunate. So I’m exploring as much as I can. And why deprive myself of the beautiful experience that chamber music provides?”

One of the things Hamelin is best known for is excavating obscure and technically demanding works. His large discography includes revelatory recordings of works by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Paul Dukas, and Nikolai Kapustin. His most recent release is a mesmerizing collection of late piano works by Ferruccio Busoni — not unknown, surely, but not mainstream repertoire, either.


“I know I give the impression of liking difficult things,” Hamelin admitted, “but actually the reason for playing these things is quite different. It’s not because I want to play difficult music; it’s because a lot of these things — I simply want to hear them, or maybe bring them back. Of course, whatever the difficulty is, if I believe enough in the music, I’ll do whatever it takes to bring it to the fore, or try to.”

A prime example is the “Night Wind” Sonata (Op. 25, No. 2), by the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner, on Sunday’s program. It is, he explained, “a very interesting mix of tight construction and a very liberal use and development of all of the motifs he sets out at the beginning.” It’s also a piece that Hamelin loves not because of its technical difficulty but for the intricacy of Medtner’s compositional craft.

“This piece is never going to be Top 40, to coin a phrase,” he said. “It’s unlikely that people will have a chance to see in detail what a master composer Medtner was. But you look at this, and I’m just so full of admiration for everything he did.

“It’s a very dense listening experience, this piece,” he continued. “That is my challenge, really — to make it as easy as possible for the listener.”

The concert also includes the US premiere of Hamelin’s own Barcarolle. Composing “is not a constant urge,” he said. “I usually wait for a good spark of inspiration. Ideas either impose themselves forcefully or they don’t.” He described the Barcarolle as a quiet work that never rises above a mezzo-piano.


Asked about how the premiere of the piece in June had gone, he simply replied, “mostly satisfactorily.” This led an interviewer to remark that he sets a high bar for performances — even for his own work.

“Always,” he said. “It’s the only bar one should set.”

Two additional Celebrity Series concerts by Marc-André Hamelin: April 13, solo and duo piano works by Brahms with Emanuel Ax (Symphony Hall); May 2, duo and trio works by Schubert, Poulenc, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartok with violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinetist Martin Fröst (Jordan Hall). Tickets: $30-$105. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.