Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor
Liszt: "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H.
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6
Debussy: Images, Book I
Godowsky: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss
After the terrific Chopin-focused recital given by Russian prodigy Daniil Trifonov on Saturday night, I was back in the Stern Auditorium on Wednesday night for much less buzzed-about but equally talented Quebecois veteran Marc-André Hamelin and his interestingly eclectic program. So many virtuosic pianists, so many brilliant composers, so many intriguing compositions, so little time!
Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to go listen to music by Franz Liszt or Claude Debussy. Add to them Frédéric Chopin from last Saturday, and I have to admit that the piano lover in me has been relishing a good life at Carnegie Hall these past few days.
Moreover, since I always welcome the opportunity to discover new composers and new works, I was looking forward to checking out the two additional pianists-composers ̶ or composers-pianists, depending on how you look at them ̶ Samuel Feinberg and Leopold Godowsky. I had never heard of them, but needless to say, if they are good enough for Marc-André Hamelin, they are certainly good enough for me.
Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 opened the concert with its irresistible mix of tranquility and playfulness, the first movement setting a quietly meditative mood before the second one exploded with infectious Gypsy-inspired melodies. Unflustered by the impressively wide range of the comparatively small work, Hamelin handled it all with assurance and flair.
Things calmed down again with Liszt’s "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude" from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a gracefully melodic piece whose restlessness may have sounded deceptively low-key at the outset, but was in fact relentless and occasionally burst out in stunning crescendos. It made the pure serenity that the pianist reached toward the end all the more poignant and fulfilling.
Our mini Liszt marathon ended with his Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H., which was originally a popular organ fantasy on a B.A.C.H motif that was first revised, then transposed for the piano by the composer himself. Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach oblige, its inherent complexity and life-affirming vitality were riveting.
The second part of the program was more varied, but no less satisfying. Feinberg’s Piano Sonata No. 4 oozed subtle but unmistakably foreboding darkness and unrelenting intensity, both of which probably stemming at least to some degree from the political situation in Russia back in 1918. It is to Hamelin’s credit that he made the somber mood deeply moving, but not overly weighty.
Debussy’s Images, Book I has long been a concert hall favorite, and the superb version that we heard on Wednesday night, sharp yet poetic, can safely be added to the list of memorable interpretations of it. Even though Debussy strongly resented the label, there is little doubt that in the right hands those Images cannot help but gently blossom into gorgeously impressionistic little gems. And sure enough, on Wednesday night the mesmerized audience was treated to a scintillating performance and indulged in every minute of it.
The official program ended with Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss, a lovely take on Strauss’ “Wine, Women and Song” and Die Fledermaus that could easily appeal to even the audience members not particularly sensitive to Viennese waltzes. The sing-songy quality of the music was tastefully expressed by Hamelin’s engaging touch and created an openly uplifting mood that was enjoyed by all.
While we could have happily called it a night, our loud appreciation was rewarded with not one, not two, but three encores! The first one were some joyfully sparkling "Feux d’artifice" (Fireworks) from Debussy’s Preludes, Book II. They were followed by Hamelin’s energetic reading of his own "Toccata on L’homme armé", a modern composition based on a French secular song from the Renaissance that he wrote for this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Then he diplomatically let us know that it was time to say goodbye with a beautiful "Abschied" (Farewell) from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82. So we did.