Is there no area of piano performance in which Marc-André Hamelin does not excel? Having heard or reviewed some of his excellent performances of Chopin, Brahms, Debussy and Alkan, it is a pleasure to know that he is equally at home in the classics.
In these new recordings from Hyperion we have a mixture of early and later sonatas, all performed impeccably and recorded to Hyperion’s usual high standards. If we take one of Mozart’s early sonatas such as K283 we hear right from the start how well Hamelin understands the style. He faithfully interprets the text as written by Mozart, but at the same time imbues the performance with personality and character. Hamelin pays great attention to dynamics and articulation as required by the composer, but he adds a really subtle rubato which is most effective and appealing. I am particularly struck by the way in which he gives each theme or idea its own meaning whilst never losing sight of the structure as a whole.
He brings true drama to the short development sections, particularly in the Andante second movement which provides a portent of things to come in his later works. The concluding Presto begins jauntily enough, but it is not just a light-hearted conclusion to the work. To begin with, it is unexpectedly long especially if all the repeats are observed, and there are moments of heightened drama and tension.
My own favourite of these early sonatas is K282 with its sublime opening Adagio, thoughtfully played here by Hamelin. He judges well the lighter mood of the second theme with its sudden, unexpected contrasts in dynamics. The rhythms of this Adagio are quite contrasted in its various sections, but Hamelin maintains a convincing pulse in spite of his considerable use of rubato. Then follows a simpler movement consisting of two minuets , and this is in its turn succeeded by a vivacious Allego requiring Hamelin’s nimble fingers to do their work. Woe betide the pianist who makes an error in fingering here, as many of my students have discovered to their cost.
However the most famous sonata by Mozart usually attempted by students is K545. Mozart composed this ‘Little Sonata for beginners’ for his pupils and when it was published much later it was known as ‘Sonata facile’. Hamelin plays the beginning very expressively and without a sense of hurry, just right for this music which must be at a speed which allows the faster notes to speak. Soon the music is moving forward pretty swiftly, though, and here Hamelin brings particular clarity to the semiquaver passages. It is perhaps a mistake to think of this movement as ‘facile’. It takes a lot of skill to bring it off successfully. The ensuing Andante moves forward more quickly than we normally hear and Hamelin does the right thing in omitting all the repeats. This movement has so much repetition anyway, and Hamelin’s way with it is very effective. So often performances of this feel like a marathon, played too slowly and with many repeats. Next Hamelin gives us a lively interpretation of the Rondo finale.
There is an attractive lyricism to Hamelin’s performance of the opening Allegro of K332, a piece full of contrasting material all deftly characterised by our pianist. His fiery approach to the ensuing section and the wit of his attack in the heavily syncopated passages are very effective. The Adagio movement sings like an operatic aria, and Hamelin makes us feel that we are listening to all the details of the Countess’s sad story in Figaro.
The final Allegro assai begins with a sudden whirlwind of semiquavers played with such velocity, but also clarity, that I can hardly believe my ears. Hamelin demonstrates his virtuosity here but never at the expense of the music. We hear a similar mix of moods, emotions and contrasts in Mozart’s final piano sonata K576. Again we have a richly coloured second movement Adagio followed by a finale characterised by extreme virtuosity. Listen to the triplet semiquavers which first appear near the beginning in the left hand. Hamelin plays all these passages seemingly effortlessly with genuine excitement, and always with great clarity of texture and articulation.
In Hamelin’s performance, the opening Andante of the Fantasia in D minor K397 sets a tragic tone and the arpeggio figures lead us to an even sadder main theme. Hamelin controls the ever-varying tempi of the several short sections in masterly fashion, though other pianists would interpret this in a rather more classical, less emotional way. Nonetheless this is very convincing, except perhaps for the final coda where Hamelin provides his own, rather dull, replacement for Breitkopf and Härtel’s—fairly perfunctory it has to be said—conclusion, which is attached from the point where Mozart’s autograph finishes.
Another melancholic piece is the Rondo in A Minor K581, which again begins in tragic mood, but this too receives a very convincing performance.
This recording is one of the best of Mozart piano sonata performances I can ever remember hearing. For a complete set of the sonatas, my benchmark has always been Mitsuko Uchido (Philips Collectors’ Edition 4683562, 5 CDs, budget price), but Mark-André Hamelin’s outstanding recording is up there with the best.