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Hyperion Records

CDA67789 - Hamelin: Études
Still of Marc-André Hamelin from the film Des pas sur la neige.
CLC Productions, 2009

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: September 2010
DISCID: 5211D818
Total duration: 76 minutes 11 seconds


'Dear Marc-André, I begged and pleaded for Hyperion to keep this disc under wraps. But now that it's released, all of us composer / pianists have no choice but to go out of business. Isn't it enough for you simply to be the world's most proficient pianist? Do you also have to compose amazingly well for your instrument, and rewardingly so? Must you serve up some of the most witty, charming, entertaining and devastatingly effective piano music of your generation?' (Gramophone)

'Hamelin's original etudes … as well as the character pieces that round out the disc, with their blend of tasteful lyricism and striking textures and harmonies, are as enjoyable as his homages. While brashly flaunting his influences (Gershwin, Poulenc, Rachmaninov) he sounds utterly individual. Of course, the composer makes all the technical difficulties sound easy to play in these vividly recorded performances' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A set of 12 Études that reveals Hamelin's immersion in the great virtuoso tradition … Hamelin the composer has the same kind of tact and imagination that Hamelin the pianist does … the virtuoso demands are daunting; but there's so much harmonic and contrapuntal interest in these works, so much sheer joie de vivre, such evident love for the instrument and its history, and such consistent wit, that even music lovers who disdain virtuoso excess are likely to be seduced … in its gentle luminosity, the [Theme and Variations] is the most touching work on the CD. Hamelin the pianist, of course, plays with his usual understated virtuosity—his unerring control of phrasing, articulation and dynamics; his ability to generate huge masses of sound without banging; his succulent legato; and, most important in the more thorny textures, his ability to give each contrapuntal line its own flavour … the engineering is first rate. A cause for celebration' (International Record Review)

'One of this extraordinary musician's finest achievements, indeed, one of the great solo piano recordings ever made' (Fanfare, USA)

'These are astounding pieces … with a hint of frenetic, sometimes out-and-out grotesque, madness. They bar no holds where technical extremes are concerned … these are the other individual works on this superlative disc cover anythign from grandiose Romanticism to 20th-century stride' (The Scotsman)

12 Études in all the minor keys
Ländler I  [2'21]
Album Leaf  [2'12]
Music Box  [2'00]
After Pergolesi  [3'49]

Hamelin plays Hamelin: a glimpse into the fabulously bizarre musical mind of one of the greatest piano virtuosos of today. The pianophile population has been clamouring for this disc for some time.

Marc-André Hamelin’s 12 Études, written over a period of nearly twenty-five years, have already achieved cult status by reputation as pianistic challenges beyond the reach of most human fingers. They are also highly-wrought character pieces. That they will immediately take their place in the concert repertoire of any pianist who thinks themself equal to them is indicated by their contemporaenous publication by Peters Edition New York.

The disc is completed by more of Hamelin’s compositions: the quiet and reflective Con intissimo sentimento, and the love poem ‘Cathy’s Variations’. As a whole it is a detailed portrait of this most talented and complex musician.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
My series of 12 Études in all the minor keys should be seen as a contribution towards perpetuating the art of the pianist-composer. Unfortunately, there are few of us today who are compelled to practise it, even though it has enjoyed a considerable resurgence, and a growing acceptance, within the last couple of decades.

Despite the fact that these études were written completely out of sequence, and over a period of almost twenty-five years, I have tried to shape this cycle into a satisfying whole. Since the études can be separated into two halves according to composition date (on either side of a span of twelve years when I wrote none) it might be tempting to look for stylistic differences between these two periods, but I can assure you that this would be a waste of time.

In addition to the publication of Étude No 12 many years ago, more than half of this collection has been previously available, circulating among pianists and interested parties for a number of years. However, previous incarnations of some of the earlier études (Nos 1, 3, 9 and 12) are now obsolete, since I have made a significant number of changes and improvements. Some of these changes were motivated by a wish for greater playability and pianistic comfort, while others are of a purely compositional nature. The collection is evenly divided between original pieces and arrangements.

Many pianists will inevitably regard these études purely as virtuoso challenges, but I must say emphatically that I intended every single one of them to be a great deal more than that. To me they are, first and foremost, character pieces; reducing them to pure exercises would bring about a meaningless result. As for listeners, my hope is that they hear much more than merely the deployment of pianistic proficiency.

Two of the études on this disc, Nos 9 and 10, are not new recordings; they have been taken from an earlier Hyperion CD, The Composer-Pianists. I felt it wasn’t necessary to re-record them because they are the only two among the earlier études that did not undergo revisions of any kind.

Between 1894 and 1914 Leopold Godowsky published his extraordinary collection of 54 Studies on Chopin’s Etudes. There is evidence, judging from back-cover listings in early editions of these pieces, that a further eleven studies were at least conceived and possibly even written out. One of these was to have been a contrapuntal combination of Chopin’s Op 10 No 2, Op 25 No 4, and Op 25 No 11, a tantalizing idea to be sure. It has always been the desire of many die-hard pianophiles to find out how in the world Godowsky was able to pull off such a bizarre compositional stunt while having the end result remain musically coherent. There has been hope that the manuscript still exists, but the greater likelihood is that it was lost or destroyed during World War II, along with the other unpublished studies.

The Triple Étude (after Chopin) was written at the suggestion of my friend Donald Manildi who, on the basis of my reworking of Op 10 No 5 (Étude No 10 in this collection) thought that I could perhaps come up with something approaching Godowsky’s contrapuntal feat. I took great pleasure in writing this little piece, especially after realizing that the first eight bars fit so well together. It gets considerably more complicated afterwards, since all three studies have widely different structures and harmonic rhythms; it therefore becomes necessary for one of them to dominate at any time, while the other two are made to conform to it. All three of them do precisely that here, in turn.

Those who were expecting Étude No 1 to have been my arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, as indeed it was for many years, shouldn’t strain their eyes and ears looking for it here. I’ve excluded it from this collection, purely on aesthetic grounds. To my mind, this Triple Étude is a much better piece.

Even if Coma Berenices bears the same name as a well-known constellation, it doesn’t directly relate to astronomy. It has to do with a beautiful head of flowing hair, in this case belonging to Queen Berenice II of Egypt, for whom the constellation was named. The florid texture of the writing is meant to evoke this. In any case, it’s a nice title! The first fourteen measures are an amplification of an excerpt from a tiny little piece in single notes I wrote when I was a teenager.

No 3 after Paganini-Liszt owes its existence to the moment when I realized that the main theme of Paganini’s La Campanella could be treated canonically. Everything took off from there, and though the ghost of Liszt is more or less constantly hovering, there is a good deal of pianistic and harmonic updating here. There are many things in this arrangement that even Liszt, with his penchant for innovation, would never have allowed himself. Out of these twelve études, this is the one which was the most significantly revised. I believe the piece is now rather more approachable pianistically, even though the difficulties are still considerable.

No 4, Étude à mouvement perpétuellement semblable (after Alkan), is a combination of two études by Charles-Valentin Alkan, namely the Étude en mouvement semblable et perpétuel, Op 76 No 3 and the finale of the Symphonie for solo piano, Op 39 No 7. The idea of combining these two works contrapuntally was not mine—it must be credited to my friend the composer Alistair Hinton, a towering musical intellect to whom concepts of this kind occur naturally and easily.

I didn’t compose this étude without some hesitation, since I’ve always believed that basing a work on material that is little known to the general public is a useless enterprise. But in this case, I found Alistair’s idea so irresistible that I had to make an exception, so that ultimately work on this étude concerned carrying a germinal idea to a satisfying conclusion, with thoughts of actual performance being secondary. But I hope that the end result can still be appreciated even by those who have not been exposed to Alkan’s music in general, and to these two works in particular.

Those who are familiar with the two source works will realize that this étude is a very free exploitation of Alkan’s original material. As with the Triple Étude, a literal superimposition of both pieces would have been impossible and pointless. I have chosen instead to fashion a work that is somewhat different from either of the two sources while still retaining large chunks of the original music; many portions of the originals are not utilized. Alkan connoisseurs will also note that the theme of his remarkable set of variations Le festin d’Ésope makes a few uninvited appearances. The title is a slightly self-deprecating take on Alkan’s own; ‘perpétuellement semblable’ implies something like ‘always the same old thing’.

Although Toccata grottesca fortunately ended up having a personality of its own, it is actually modeled closely after a preexisting piece by another composer. This was a pure experiment on my part, and I am quite surprised at how I was able to adhere to the model without making the derivation obvious (at least I don’t think it’s obvious!), considering how similar the texture and form ended up being. Understandably, I don’t wish to reveal the identity of the original, and I am interested to know how skilful I was in masking the source of my inspiration. (Who is it that once said ‘originality is the art of concealing one’s source’?) It is not a terribly well-known work, although someone with a sufficiently broad knowledge of the piano literature might recognize it. I woke up one morning with the first eight bars of this étude fully formed in my head, and I immediately thought ‘hey, that sounds a little bit like …’. And so the piece was born.

Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas constitute a body of work replete with marvellous invention and amazing variety. Yet, inevitably perhaps, there are recurring mannerisms, and to someone like myself who is easily given to lampooning, these are very easy to make fun of. Anyone who, like me, loves these sonatas should not in the least take offence at what I’ve done in No 6, Esercizio per pianoforte ‘Omaggio a Domenico Scarlatti’—this is a purely affectionate tribute, even though I have obviously exaggerated a few things! The acrobatic nature of the writing adds a humorous visual dimension to any live performance, a dimension that is of course lost in a recording.

The initial idea to make an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby Op 16 No 1 for Étude No 7, after Tchaikovsky (for the left hand alone), came because of my performances of it as pianist in the original version for voice and piano. My transformation of it came about after the song simply started rolling around in my head insistently one day, to the point where I had to do something about it.

In composing for the left hand alone, I am contributing to a long and noble tradition. Unlike some composers, I don’t regard writing for one hand as an opportunity to display pianistic proficiency; instead I consider it a fascinating compositional constraint. Such writing presents quite a challenge. Indeed, there is not much point in composing for one hand unless one tries to make the textures as rich as possible, and it is a special delight to try to make one hand sound like two. This is precisely what is attempted here, and for this reason the chief difficulty of the piece resides in the proper control of the pedal. Only the most careful handling of it will ensure the seamlessness and the richness of texture that ultimately creates the illusion of two-handed playing.

Although I had been aware of Rachmaninov’s (two-handed) arrangement for many years before I wrote this one, I had never actually heard it. Not until after I had finished mine did I patiently wade through Rachmaninov’s seven-flatted forest.

It should be said straight away that Erlkönig, Étude No 8, has nothing to do musically with the Schubert song of the same name. However, they do have a common source, one of the most masterful poems in the entire German literature. My piece is basically a faithful setting of this poem, adhering to it as closely as any vocal setting, the only difference being that I repeated the first four lines for musical reasons.

As novel as the idea might seem, this is not the first time that Goethe’s poem has been given a non-vocal setting. So far as I know that distinction belongs to Alexis Hollaender, who sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century fashioned a short work for left hand alone that also adheres to the text. It was Hollaender’s piece that started me thinking about using the poem for an étude, but the seed may have been planted many years earlier. While still at school I came across a quotation of Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s vocal setting in Donald Jay Grout’s A History of Western Music; I remember then being struck by how different an approach Reichardt had adopted from the Schubert we are all familiar with. (Other settings from the same period include those by Loewe, Spohr and Zelter, all available on Schubert's Friends and Contemporaries.)

The performer is of course expected to know Goethe’s poem; familiarity with it is absolutely essential to a successful performance, especially in order to give a different tone to all the characters in the story. I have attempted to paint a picture in sound of the poem’s many facets. For example, at the end of the child’s second Erlking hallucination, he can be felt trying to say ‘Mein Vater, mein Vater’ before he fully wakes up and actually says it, and this is reflected in the different dynamics given to each hand.

Turning to Étude No 9, after Rossini, I think I must have inherited a double-note gene! Double notes of any kind usually pose thorny problems, but they also yield textures of uncommon richness, and somehow it was my thought that this could be applied to Rossini’s wonderful song La danza. I felt particularly cheerful and mischievous during the three or four days it took me to write this piece, and set about turning Rossini’s original practically upside-down, especially during the second couplet. Poor Rossini is subjected to sudden major-minor shifts, melodic inversions, a tune that starts a third too high, blue-note chords, and what amounts to something of a full-blown epileptic seizure towards the end. Also, at 1'05, for no particular reason, there is a slight allusion to the Gigue from Bach’s Fifth French Suite.

The musicologist Marc-André Roberge, who has followed the evolution of this collection with great interest, recently reminded me of the genesis of Étude No 10, after Chopin, something I must admit I had completely forgotten about. In 1990 he had shown me an arrangement of Chopin’s so-called ‘Black Key’ étude by the Busoni disciple Gottfried Galston. It is included in a volume of exercises entitled Studienbuch and is an eye-popping horror, full of barely playable double notes. It was surely meant only for the practice room, but apparently, according to Marc-André, it set me thinking about doing something with the Black Key étude myself.

The result has always been one of my favourites in the set, although it hasn’t yet received as much attention from pianists as some of the others. Years ago I was fond of describing the piece as the original Chopin étude heard through about twenty feet of water. This is the crudest way to explain what goes on here, but there is a grain of truth: everything is distorted—melody, mode, harmony, timbre, texture, even the pianist’s physical feeling compared with playing the original.

The Minuetto was the last one of these études to be written, and the main theme comes from a sketch dating from about ten years earlier; according to this sketch, I had originally intended this minuet as being part of a sonata. I think it provides a welcome contrast within an otherwise ‘busy’ collection, and because of the (intentional) similarity between its final cadence and the beginning of the Prelude and Fugue, the two pieces go particularly well programmed together. On the personal side, it was interesting for me to link the two pieces this way, uniting, as it were, the earliest-written étude in this opus with the most recent one.

The Prelude and Fugue, the final étude in the collection, was actually my first sizeable compositional effort. At the time of writing, I did not have a complete set of études in mind; moreover, the fugue was written first, and it was only natural that I should later preface it, in accordance with a long-established precedent. Retrospectively, it seems to me that the fugue in particular has a lot in common with the tarantella-like movement of Busoni’s Piano Concerto, which I was learning at the time. The work was never meant to become such a monstrous agglomeration of cruel virtuosic devices; I simply wanted to explore some of the possibilities of the rather silly fugue subject. Once started, the piece started going pretty much on its own, in directions I hadn’t anticipated.

I experienced a rather uneasy moment when, some time after completing the piece, I came across Sergei Taneyev’s Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor, Op 29. I was alarmed to see that there were some startling similarities between the two fugues: same metre, same key (enharmonically), same pianistic terrains, and a very similar fugue subject. Please be assured that if this were other than mere coincidence, I would be honest enough to admit it!

The Little Nocturne is a very short piece written following a request from Clavier magazine; the editor wanted to include a small something of mine as a complement to a lengthy feature interview. I’ve played this often as an encore, and the reactions pertaining to its possible influences have been many and widely varied.

The collection Con intimissimo sentimento was assembled in 2000 and includes pieces written as early as 1986. I wanted to gain a larger number of performances of my music, given the great difficulty of most of my other pieces. They are all of a quiet and reflective nature, and are suitable for pianists of moderate ability. The seven pieces can work well enough as a suite—I have presented it many times in concert as such—but it is meant purely as a collection from which to pick and choose. (Two of the pieces, the Ländler II and III, had to be omitted here owing to lack of space.)

The Theme and Variations is purely the work of a man in love, and it was inspired by my fiancée Cathy Fuller, my true soulmate, who fascinates me more with each passing day. As a matter of fact, the theme is meant to be a portrait of her, something that I’d never had the idea of attempting before. I will always remember the day I first played this piece for her as one of the happiest in my life.

Save perhaps for the slightly naughty inclusion of a meaningful French folksong somewhere in the texture during the coda, there are no motivic allusions or musical codes à la Robert and Clara. The music is as pure and loving as I knew how to make it, though in the instance of variation 3, the composer-pianist in me couldn’t resist welding the theme to an extended passage from the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major Op 109, one of Cathy’s favourite pieces, by the one composer she could never do without.

Marc-André Hamelin © 2010

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