Setting aside a 2000 Danacord release featuring four movements from the first book of On the Overgrown Path, this is Marc-André Hamelin’s first extended exploration of Janáček's piano music. It proves to be a totally compelling experience confirming Hamelin’s strong empathy for the composer. The hushed tone of the opening piece ‘Our evenings’, with its asymmetric phrase structure and ambiguous harmonies that hover apprehensively between major and minor tonalities, sets the scene for the whole cycle, one suffused with unease and growing anxiety. Hamelin negotiates this emotional trajectory from carefree innocence to utter dejection through a masterly control of timbre and atmosphere. Deceptively simple melodic and chordal figurations are subverted as a result of Hamelin’s deliberately introverted playing and astonishingly delicate touch. Even in the more ostensibly upbeat pieces such as ‘Come with us!’ and ‘They chattered like swallows’, Hamelin creates a feeling of uncertainty as he disrupts the flow of lively dance rhythms with moments of hesitation and gloomy introspection. The seventh piece ‘Good night!’ is particularly evocative. It begins almost inaudibly as if transfixed in a dream. But this tranquillity proves illusory, as a warmly expressive melodic line, inflected by Hamelin’s subtle manipulation of rubato, builds up to a climax of heart-wrenching poignancy. Notice too how vividly Hamelin depicts the claustrophobic nature of the chromatic harmonies in ‘Unutterable anguish’ and projects a sense of numbed grief in 'In tears’. Following this, the violent flourishes that punctuate ‘The barn owl has not flown away!’ sound all the more terrifying, given the relative restraint in the earlier pieces.
Hamelin has already made several fine recordings of Schumann’s piano music, focusing on big virtuoso pieces. He proves to be equally adept at exploring the more intimate side of the composer’s character and the two Schumann cycles here are absolutely magical. Hamelin draws us into inner worlds of the forest (Waldszenen) and childhood (Kinderszenen) with playing of haunting sensitivity. I have seldom heard a more mesmeric account of 'Vogel als Prophet’ from Waldszenen, and Hamelin invests the ubiquitous 'Träumerei’ from Kinderszenen with great warmth, avoiding any possible hint of sentimentality.
In contrast to the Janáček, there are more opportunities in these works for displaying unbounded joy and exhilaration (eg ‘Herberge’ and 'Jagdlied' in Waldszenen and ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ from Kinderszenen) and Hamelin’s impulsive approach, supported by excellent recorded sound, perfectly captures their moods.