Claire Jackson
BBC Music Magazine
May 2024

The jaunty theme from Paganini’s Caprice No 24 has long provided a musical diving board: composers from Brahms to Beamish have plunged the melody beyond the violinist’s own brilliant variations. Rachmaninov’s rhapsodic experiment furthered the work’s pianistic possibilities; that dramatic lyricism is matched by Marc-André Hamelin’s grittier 2011 set, recorded for the first time here by the composer. The original melody is sharpened by rapid development; the tonality is ultimately discoloured by cluster chords and flitting harmonies.

The seemingly galant beginning to No 5 quickly moves into a thrilling cross- rhythmic chase, opening No 6 in a haze—interrupted by well-known, fragmented snippets, rather like tuning an analogue radio. Needless to say, this endlessly fascinating collection is played with style and incredible subtlety.

There’s wit, too, in the clear references to Rachmaninov and Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini. In other hands this music could easily sound like a pub quiz music round, but Hamelin’s structure, though fluid, is always carefully considered.

The Pavane variations are similarly compelling. Based on the theme derived from Thoinot Arbeau’s chanson ‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ (recognisable to some as the tune featured within Warlock’s Capriol Suite), they too benefit from Hamelin’s unconstricted approach. Once neatly set on its stall, the melodic material is almost immediately overturned: No 2 is dream-like, No 5 ripples into a tirade that becomes its successor. The drama is stopped abruptly by a Feldman-like chorale, echoed again in an otherwise exultant No 9 (Hamelin has recorded Feldman’s spacious For Bunita Marcus). I couldn’t hum the original theme by this point if my life depended on it.

Such intensely varied, virtuosic music naturally requires technical skill, interpretative flair and, frankly, guts. It’s easy to see why Hamelin is sought after by piano competitions—the 2014 Pavane variations were commissioned by the ARD International Music Competition in Germany, followed by the Toccata on ‘L’homme armé’ (2016), which was a set piece for the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This small-but-perfectly-formed miniature is dense, notes splattering across the keyboard as the work’s central melody vaguely evokes a warlike early modern song.

It’s one of four compact pieces featured on the album; the Meditation on Laura, from 2011, is sparse and twinkly, as is My feelings about chocolate (2014), which furthers some of the minimalistic ideas hinted at during the variations. The sensory experience of a sweet treat is beautifully translated into pools of sound, rather like the use of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for Galaxy’s 1992 ‘Why have cotton when you can have silk?’ advertising campaign.

Hamelin’s interest in mining thematic veins continues with 2013’s Barcarolle and Chaconne. In the latter, a musical cipher provides the impetus to a series that is concurrently pensive and quietly playful, simmering but never bubbling over, with every whispered secret beautifully kept. The Barcarolle expressively swirls unlikely colours, marbling harmonies but keeping a tonal centre always firmly in view. I don’t recall ever giving a recording the full ten stars. But then, I hadn’t heard Hamelin play his own work.