Scriabin: Fantasy in B Minor, Op. 28
Prokofiev: Sarcasms, Op. 17
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 3
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Although my official 2019-2020 Carnegie Hall season got underway on the Tuesday evening of the previous week with the winning team of the Dover Quartet and Emanuel Ax in Zankel Hall, its start actually felt truly complete this past Tuesday evening as I was entering the iconic Stern Auditorium with my friend Joe for a recital by Marc-André Hamelin, who was paying his annual fall visit to Carnegie Hall.
Understated almost to a fault, the Canadian pianist has nevertheless been distinguishing himself by his impeccable technique, profound musicianship and fierce spirit of adventure for decades now. Therefore, we were understandably very excited at the prospect of hearing him tackle an attractive program consisting of three obscure Russian works of the early 20th century by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Feinberg, as well as some more traditional musing about death by 19th century Schubert. Definitely a good enough reason to make it to the corner of W. 57th Street and7th Avenue even on a miserable rainy evening.
Never one to make life easy for himself, Hamelin started his performance for Alexander Scriabin’s dauntingly challenging Fantasy in B Minor, whose sweeping dramatic intensity turned out to be a dazzling contrast to its countless subtle nuances, the tightly controlled virtuosic splash being expertly packed in a mere 10 minutes. Now that’s what I would call hitting the ground running.
Sergei Prokofiev’s pianist skills were second to none, which probably explains why he was able to compose with unwavering confidence for the instrument even at a fairly young age as his student work Sarcasms positively proved on Tuesday night. And if the five short movements contain a wide range of widely contracting unusual sounds, they also make room for some unmistakable touches of true lyricism which Hamelin took the time to cleverly point out.
Samuil Feinberg concluded the Russian part of the program with his Piano Sonata No. 3, a dark and turbulent journey with just a bit of introspection for good measure, which kind of brought us back full circle to Scriabin in terms of unabashed intensity. And if Hamelin did not hesitate to relentlessly pound on the long-suffering piano when the score required it, he also managed to nail some impressive acrobatics before naturally landing on his feet.
While the Russian half of the program had been richly rewarding, after intermission Hamelin let off the pedal and treated the audience to a stunningly beautiful performance of Franz Schubert’s death-contemplating Piano Sonata in B-flat Major. Serenely extending over 45 minutes, the composer’s last instrumental work shows a deep sense of acceptance, which Hamelin delicately conveys in his unpretentious (This was no shrink session) and unsentimental (This was no soap opera) performance.
As if the substantial concert had not been enough, Hamelin heeded our insistent applause and came back with three encores that included a transcendental Barcarolle No. 3 in G-flat Major by Fauré, a playful "Général Lavine - eccentric" from Préludes by Debussy, and an endearing "Music Box" from Con Intimissimo Sentimento, No. 5 by… Hamelin himself. There’s clearly nothing the man cannot do.