Encores & Curtain Calls: Hamelin — ‘I try to discover the piece along with them’
“Genuine creation, a seal (proof) of the spirit, reveals itself only when the artist is heedless of creating, when he is intent upon serving. The great masters of the past served, and therefore their compositions have earned the seal of the creative spirit. True individuality, like a seal of the soul, comes only when the artist thinks least of all of himself.”
— Nicolai Medtner, “The Muse and the Fashion” 1951
Sometimes we forget that these beings we so eagerly pursue into the world’s cultural meccas are also inhabitants of human bodies, bodies rife with vulnerabilities strikingly similar to our own. We prefer to simply consider them cultural super- beings; Marc-Andre Hamelin may be a good case in point as to why.
A once-in-an-epoch musician (I use the word advisedly, as opposed to merely “pianist”), Hamelin, whose unearthly art will be on show at the upcoming Music in Deerfield concert at Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College on Friday, Jan. 24, will be offering works by Schubert, Hamelin himself, and by a less well-known genius named Nikolai Medtner, a colleague of Sergei Rachmaninoff with gifts that readily rival those of his peer.
The concert starts at 8 p.m. It will be preceded at 7 p.m. with Concert Conversations, a discussion of the program with Music In Deerfield’s Artistic Director John Montanari in the Earle Recital Hall.
The recent discovery of the unknown genius of Nicolai Medtner struck my musical soul as almost shocking revelation: each micro-second of his torrential outpourings contained genuine inspiration such as one seldom encounters in any composer’s body of work. Indeed, in listening to an online performance by Andrey Ponochevny of Hamelin’s featured work, Medtner’s Sonata in E Minor (“The Night Wind”), there was virtually no moment at which one’s helplessly riveted attention could escape the overpowering grasp of the composer’s invention, a rare and striking experience.
Hamelin is lauded for his artistic probity, his aesthetic fearlessness and his “chops,” the latter of which proves him equal to any challenge, anywhere, anytime. To see him is not quite to believe him.
Soon we’ll have the chance to behold him — live and up close — not, as would be in Carnegie Hall, merely by virtue of a good pair of binoculars.
Hamelin is, in dialogue, at once a supremely reasoned yet deeply feeling soul, articulate in the extreme, yet without a hint of even submerged artistic ego. Beyond all else, after our interview, I was left with a sense of his abiding humility and humanity:
JM: Well, given I only had an hour’s notice that I would be able to interview you, and didn’t know his music, I did a crash course in the last 40 minutes on the composer Nicolai Medtner.
MH: Oh, yes. It’s questionable how much you can cover in 40 minutes!
JM: Well, I have a weird ability to absorb great amounts in a brief period of time ... And, being a composer, there’s this kind of X-ray vision into what’s going on in the music, even the first time around. Medtner is an amazing soul! He out-Rachmaninoffed Rachmaninoff. It’s almost as if his music is the child of a marriage between Rachmaninoff and (Russian composer Alexander) Scriabin.
JM: I wanted to ask you about his aesthetic, because I’ve listened to three major works in that 40 minutes. While I was listening, something Ned Rorem once said came to mind, that often, throughout his life, a composer is composing the same piece again and again in different ways. And I feel, when listening to the Medtner pieces, as if I’m listening to one ceaseless outpouring of torrential “soul-melody,” kind of an “urmotif” (primal motif). It’s as if one could clip that piece off at any point, but it would nonetheless continue to be part and parcel of the previous or the next piece by that composer. In the fabric of his writing there’s this constant Rachmaninoff-like filigree of constant, wave-like 16th or perhaps even 32nd notes in countermelodic flow, which I’m sure you as performer know far better than I.
MH: I think that comes from being a pianist, because he was a very good pianist, so inevitably some figurations (musical patterns) are going to crop up.
JM: And the emotional effect that it creates is rather rhapsodic, ecstatic ... it didn’t seem as if Medtner had the desire or perhaps even degree of control over his own muses to isolate and create more cohesive structures out of these brilliant ideas. Is this at all your feeling?
MH: No. If you look closely at something like the “Nightwind” sonata, he had an iron grip on his material. I mean, it’s to the point that, when I really look at the extent of his craft and what he was able to do with themes and motifs, I want to genuflect in front of him and the music because he had such control of his material. I think the thing with Medtner is ... he is hard to grasp at first hearing. I think the very solid inner logic is perhaps not apparent at first.
JM: So you do feel he does justice to all the material that births within him within the parameters of a single piece?
JM: OK, then ... I will give it many listenings, including when you perform it, but it strikes me on first — and fairly deep — hearing that the wealth of material that he opens up for the listener is almost overwhelming and my question ... is whether or not he has overestimated the absorptive powers of his listeners.
MH: It’s possible, but he worked completely within his own convictions and his great hope was to be understood. He wasn’t writing to be impenetrable but it was just his way, really. I mean, I’ve heard the criticism that his work was challenging on first hearing, and I can understand that, but that doesn’t make it a bad piece.
JM: No, no!
MH: On the contrary, I have the highest respect for that sonata. I mean, I wouldn’t bother thrusting on the public if I didn’t believe in it 150 percent.
JM: I was thrilled emotionally by the music from beginning to end and I “got” everything that was coming my way, but he never holds on, let’s say in the classic structural way of a Bach or a Mozart, to an idea for very long before it morphs or metamorphosizes into something else, you understand?
MH: Yes, yes I do. All I can tell you is that the very first time I heard the piece, and without the score, just listened to the pure music, I listened to the only recording that was then available and I was enthralled from beginning to end. If that hadn’t been the case ... I wouldn’t have bothered.
JM: So then we’re on the same page; it is enthralling, overwhelming. It’s almost like a guy who’s so thrilled to be alive that, rather than hang out on the hill he’s just come over, he looks at the next hill and asks himself “What’s over that further horizon?” ... That’s just his aesthetic, an ecstatic one to be sure, because there’s very little “hang time” or idle time, is there?
MH: Yeah, that’s right. Both the introduction and the interlude between the two movements are slow, but the rest is just a flurry of activity. I mean, you get this criticism that Medtner is just Rachmaninoff without the tunes, I could just scream when I hear that!
JM: No, I can hear the tunes, all of them ... My question to you, then, is, if even some of what I’m proposing as devil’s advocate is true, would that at all influence your decision as to how rapidly you chose to run such dense ideas by people? In other words, would you dare to “mess with” Medtner’s score notations as to how fast or long you take to do something?
MH: No. I present the music as I believe it was meant to be presented. I take the composer’s wishes very seriously, as much as I can puzzle them out. Another thing is, I never, ever, ever underestimate the audience. I always go on the assumption that they can ride along with you.
JM: That’s a beautiful assumption to go on!
MH: My greatest pleasure, the only reason that I do this, that I go onstage, is to share, to have the pleasure of sharing miracles, miracles of creativity. Of course, not everybody is going to get it equally, but, in a sense, you have to accept that. One of my ways of doing things, whether it’s the “Moonlight” sonata or something like that, is to play as if no one in the audience ever heard it before. To be clear, I try to discover the piece along with them as I play it, with the knowledge that for some it might be the first time hearing it.
JM: Given Medtner’s sound pallette, I imagine that he was a great admirer of Scriabin?
MH: Well, early Scriabin ... it’s funny, somebody once told me that Medtner used to go to Scriabin’s recitals at the beginning (Scriabin’s early, rather Chopinesque style of composing for piano - JM) and that when the idiom got a little bit advanced, Medtner sat in the middle of the hall and in late Scriabin, Medtner didn’t come at all.
JM: Wow, that’s fascinating, I feel Scriabin really got short shrift in musical history. The whole harmonic aesthetic of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” is lifted wholesale from Scriabin’s late work and he really fertilized the thinking of so many composers. You’re also doing four impromptus of Schubert. Given the unceasing fire and passion of the Medtner, I’m imagining you chose the Schubert provided as a good counter-balancing work.
JM: They’re very consoling, they’re very harmonically balanced and, for the most part, serene.
MH: Yep and I love ’em, very simple.
JM: And then there’s a piece of your own, “Barcarolle.”
JM: Do you compose regularly?
MH: Not regularly, but occasionally.
JM: Would you risk characterizing your own aesthetic in words?
MH: It’s tonal and chromatic.
JM: A dangerous question here, because every time I encounter Marc-Andre Hamelin in the media, it’s all about virtuosity and monstrous technique. Is there something about simplicity that irks your nature? A terrible question!
MH: It has more to do with the type of music that I particularly like. My tastes are not restricted to that. I mean, I do tend to have an attraction to pieces that are dense, that are orchestrally conceived and these do tend to be very difficult. And, very often, these pieces, especially when they’re obscure, will not have been recorded and the only way you can find out what they sound like is to learn them yourself or, at least, read them yourself. But, having said that, my last recital, I was playing some short pieces by Janacek, which are simplicity themselves.
JM: And you weren’t frustrated by the process?
MH: I have the highest admiration for Janacek, who was able to create such worlds of emotion with so few notes. To me, that’s the real mastership.
JM: So there’s nothing intrinsically within your nature that seeks difficulty?
MH: No, but people will assume ... if there is difficulty, it’s not out of a wish to fulfill myself, it’s to serve a purpose.
JM: I believe you.
MH: Thank you ... thank you, many wouldn’t.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.