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Marc-André Hamelin

born: 1961
country: Canada

‘I am a part of all that I have met.’

This line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses aptly sums up the relationship of the performer-composer to a surrounding artistic landscape. It might allude to the conscious homages paid by one composer to another through quotation: there exists a whole matrix of such interactions between Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms … Or Tennyson’s phrase might equally imply a more subconscious kind of reciprocal assimilation: Medtner and Rachmaninov passed recognizable melodic outlines, motivic rhythms and pianistic textures back and forth across the terrain of their combined piano solo outputs. One could continue; the list is potentially endless, if often conjectural. Just as once it was seen as normal to deepen one’s understanding of an existing artwork by hand-copying it, so for the pianist-composer it has long seemed natural to tap into the musical past, and to make it one’s own, by quotation; implicitly, by a kind of commentary that announces, like a carved name on a cathedral wall, ‘I, a musical traveller, was here and recorded my response for you who come after’.

Marc-André Hamelin sees himself as a pianist who happens to compose, yet he carries forward a noble tradition of excelling in both domains. Questioned regularly by interviewers dwelling on his legendary pianistic powers, he has emphasized not hours of practice but the importance of having what he calls ‘a good mind for music’, attributing a significant part of his superhuman agility to a highly developed intellectual and instinctive grasp of harmonic structures and their attendant shapes. This facility was at work when, some years ago, after giving a recital, Hamelin overheard a jazz ‘combo’ in a London restaurant. The song Tico-Tico no fubá by the Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu (1880-1935) lodged in his brain, tangling there with Chopin’s chromatic A minor étude, Op 10 No 2. In Hamelin’s words: ‘This is the kind of thing that occurs to us composer-pianists for no particular reason, but which provides us with no end of giddy delight when two different and seemingly alien musical strands are found to fit perfectly well together.’ The result was a transcription in which the two pieces occur simultaneously. Hamelin stresses the harmless fun of such an undertaking, yet the ability to carry it off proceeded from a mind that had pianistically mastered and compositionally emulated the notorious polyphonic labyrinth of Chopin études as re-imagined and combined by the Lithuanian-American composer-pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) and recorded by Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67411/2.

In enjoying the allusive maze of historical echoes into which Hamelin’s own piano music leads us, we should remember that it rests upon dispassionate analytical insight; such adventures coalesce with the most exactingly serious exercise of musical intellect. They also feed off encyclopaedic knowledge of the piano’s vast literature.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2024


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