Marc-André Hamelin: reinventing the repertoire

Harriet Smith
Thursday, September 21, 2017

For the virtuoso Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, championing the lesser-known composers will always be at the heart of what he does, albeit with a little Rachmaninov and Schubert thrown in, writes Harriet Smith

Marc-André Hamelin (photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Marc-André Hamelin (photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Some of the highlights of my concert-going life have been courtesy of Marc-André Hamelin, be they his late-night Liszt recital at the 2011 Proms, Rzewski’s The People United at Wigmore Hall or a Busoni Piano Concerto with the CBSO and Sir Mark Elder, for which he got the start time wrong, leaving Elder to entertain the audience in his inimitable way until the soloist could be tracked down. And if, to the delight of ‘pianoraks’ everywhere, he initially made his name with music at the more esoteric end of the spectrum, that’s certainly not the case these days – in fact, he points out that he has now given more recitals of standard than non-standard repertoire.

Take his most recent disc, for example, out this month, with the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski. What could be more ‘standard’ than Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto? But there’s a Hamelin-esque twist as he combines it not with more Rachmaninov but with Medtner’s Second Concerto.

‘I’m extremely fond of the Rachmaninov Third,’ he tells me, ‘but the thrust of the CD was really to push the Medtner Second – which I really think is the best of his three piano concertos – a little bit more into the public eye and into the consciousness of other pianists too. I do believe it’s a brilliant work in every respect.’ Hamelin and Medtner have long been best buddies, as witness his cycle of the sonatas for Hyperion some two decades ago; not only was this the first complete recording but it also set a benchmark that has yet to be superseded. He comments, with characteristic understatement: ‘I’m happy that the set seems to have turned people round to Medtner, and it’s great to find young pianists playing his music.’


Rachmaninov was a great admirer of Medtner, declaring him the finest composer of their time, and the feeling was mutual – Medtner dedicated his Second Concerto to Sergey, who returned the favour with his Fourth Concerto. But though the similarities are many – both late-Romantics (born seven years apart), both Moscow Conservatoire-trained, both brilliant pianists, both émigrés, both finding their particular musical voice early on – how is it that one is a household name and the other the preserve of specialists? ‘There is definitely a difference in the way that Rachmaninov reaches the listener,’ says Hamelin. ‘It’s not that Medtner puts up a barrier, but his mode of expression just happens to be less immediate – it takes more time to get into it. But once you do, it really becomes rather irresistible.’ And instantly recognisable, too – a fact that, I suggest, is down to Medtner’s particular way with rhythm every bit as much as his melodic flair. ‘That’s true – and in the Second Concerto, particularly the first movement, that rhythm is so buoyant and full of life. I can’t understand how you can fail to be captivated by it.’

Medtner was, though, his own worst enemy in terms of the dissemination of his music, and his refusal to play the fame game hardly helped matters. ‘Rachmaninov used to tell him he ought to give concerts like everyone else and play other people’s music, not just his own,’ says Hamelin. ‘Medtner had an offer from HMV to record all the Beethoven sonatas – imagine that! – but he only recorded the one he loved the most, the Appassionata.’

Perhaps the issue of Medtner’s relative obscurity is compounded by the fact that, in a work such as his Second Concerto, there’s very little let-up for the soloist? ‘True, but the saving grace is that everything is unbelievably pianistic, so even passages that sound very difficult are right under the fingers at all times. He really went out of his way to create situations that sounded difficult, even impossible, but which were absolutely conceived to fit comfortably under the hand.

‘By contrast, there are definitely awkward things in Rachmaninov and – I say this at the risk of blasphemy and raising the hackles of musicologists and even pianists – it is possible to re-score his music ever so slightly, occasionally taking out a note that is acoustically unnecessary. Of course I don’t approach a piece intending to do this but sometimes, even in the Third Concerto, when no other solution can be found, it can make for a better result.’

Improvement, or intervention?

There is a fine line between improvement and intervention, and some would argue that it isn’t the place of the interpreter to mess about with what the composer wrote. But Hamelin, having experience of both disciplines, is in a better position than most when it comes to arguing the point. ‘The thing is, if you have written music yourself, or at least tried to, if you have tried to translate your intangible notions into this imperfect system of notation, you quickly realise what a marvel the composer’s task is. And it helps you to feel much closer to the creator of the work you are performing – sympathetic, too. It also allows you to make better decisions, because you don’t suddenly want to be faithful to every ink blot on the page. You are much more likely to make reasonable choices.’

Would he argue, then, that a slavish adherence to the score is rather unimaginative? ‘In a way, yes. And, with many composers, the score is a frozen moment in time. It doesn’t reflect afterthoughts. It doesn’t allow for sometimes diametrical changes of mind. Of course one shouldn’t make extreme decisions that are completely against what the score says, but sometimes it is permissible to go a little bit away from it.’

Hamelin then strolls over to the piano and offers a rather more provocative example of what we’re talking about. The first of Schubert’s second set of Impromptus, D935, gains a more extended ending, but one that sounds entirely fitting stylistically, rounding off the piece with great grace. ‘It’s such an incredible piece, going on a real journey, but it basically finishes without a coda.’ Deadpan. ‘So I added one. I’ve been playing it like this for three years now and the most negative comment I got was that I did a bizarre improvisation!’ He gleefully adds that one of the places he’d performed it was at the Schubertiade in Austria, and bursts out laughing at the memory. Warming to the theme, he suggests that the last movement of the Trout would benefit in the same way. But he has yet to convince his string-player colleagues about that.


Hamelin has now been with Hyperion for nearly a quarter of a century, with more than 60 discs under his belt. It all began when Mike Spring, creator of the label’s hugely successful Romantic Piano Concerto series, heard him give a recital with the cellist Sophie Rolland and asked him if he’d like to contribute to the series. The result was Vol 7, coupling concertos by Alkan and Henselt – and the rest is history.

Though the vast majority of his recording catalogue has been dedicated to solo repertoire, there have been a number of notable chamber discs, from standard repertoire such as the Brahms piano quartets (with the Leopold String Trio) and the Franck Piano Quintet (with the Takács Quartet), to rarities such as the Ornstein Quintet, in the company of the Pacifica Quartet, with whom he has a particularly warm relationship. It is with them that he premiered his own Piano Quintet in February.

‘I’d already written part of it, a Passacaglia, in 2002 so the commission was to complete it with two additional movements,’ Hamelin recalls. ‘It was interesting writing for strings, as I’ve never played a string instrument.’ Had he, like Brahms, felt the need to consult his fellow players? ‘No – in fact the string writing is fairly unadventurous. The first movement is a moto perpetuo but a serene one and the piano features heavily. But the third movement features the strings a lot more and me a lot less. Beyond that, it might sound very alien to post-modern ears because it’s very tonal.’ You mean Medtner would have approved? ‘I think it’s more post-Fauré. It wasn’t intentional – it’s just the way it came out. I find I go in different directions depending on what the germinal idea is.’

Also preoccupying Hamelin at the time of our conversation was the completion of the test piece for the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, for which he is also making a rare appearance on the jury. ‘The piece is about two-thirds done and it has been an interesting project – I didn’t want to write something that was impossible technically, but instead wanted to make it a musical challenge. It’s quite a serious piece. But the daunting thing is that everyone is going to have to play it, not just the semi-finalists. So’, he says, laughing, ‘it will be heard more than 30 times.’ That will surely be fascinating? ‘Or absolutely stultifying – depending on how the piece comes out!’

Competitions in general are, he feels, a necessary evil, but he particularly dislikes they way they tend to encourage a single-mindedness from the earliest stages of study. ‘I do believe in a well-rounded musical training, even though I’m not the most shining example of this. I play the piano, I compose, as a young school kid I played the clarinet and I sang a lot and I’ve edited music – but that’s not a huge range. I would encourage people to go further because everything feeds into everything else. Sometimes inspiration, enlightenment, watershed moments, can come from the unlikeliest places.’

Schubert's final sonata

There’s no question that, when it comes to repertoire, Hamelin’s appetite is hearty indeed. ‘With some of the more obscure repertoire, Roslavets for example, it was atrociously difficult music to learn but I did it for the best of reasons – not for personal glory but because I wanted to hear it. The reason I do any of this is to share, and the most that I want this collection of recordings to have accomplished is to have made some kind of a difference as far as people’s appreciation of this repertoire is concerned.’

But Hamelin’s next recording couldn’t be more central: Schubert’s last piano sonata, the great B flat major, D960. Is it a work in which he feels the weight of history in a way that he hasn’t with more left-field repertoire? ‘This may sound pretentious and I don’t want it to, but I wouldn’t bother doing it if I didn’t feel that the recording could make some kind of mark.’ He was encouraged by the reaction he got at the Schubertiade, who asked him to perform the B flat Sonata for his first appearance there in 2014. ‘I still can’t believe they trusted me with it, but their reaction was very positive, and that gave me a lot of courage.’

He was minded to issue the live version with some edits but, having listened to it, subsequently decided he could do better. He’ll be recording it in the studio in May, for release in 2018. ‘The common comment that I get is that my live performances are usually better than my studio recordings and, although I approach both with exactly the same degree of commitment, I’m ready to accept that, because inevitably, when I’m on stage, there’s going to be more of a desire to reach out more, to communicate, even though I’m not aware of it. The sonata will be coupled with those D935 Impromptus, for which I will be attacked for that coda!’

Hidden gems

Turning our back on the mainstream again, Hamelin’s current preoccupations are typically diverse, if alphabetically close: Feinberg and Feldman. One concert programme this season features no fewer than six sonatas – by Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Feinberg (Nos 1 and 2) and Scriabin. That’s quite ambitious, even by Hamelin’s standards. ‘I’m very seriously trying to introduce Samuil Feinberg’s works to people! There are 12 piano sonatas and, until relatively recently, the music just wasn’t published in the West, except for the Sixth Sonata. Other than that, you just couldn’t get hold of the scores.’ That’s one area which has been transformed by the internet in general and websites such as the Petrucci Music Library in particular. Feinberg, born in 1890, a decade after Medtner whom he outlived by 11 years, is better known to us in the West as a prodigious pianist, but he was very reticent about his own music. It’s admittedly very demanding or, as Hamelin puts it, ‘very polyphonic, very pianistic. I don’t want to use the word “gnarly” because I think there’s a negative connotation there, but it’s extremely closely knit piano writing. It’s the kind of thing I love.’ It’s also the kind of thing that he does better than almost anyone – the same could be said of the Chopin-Godowsky studies or the aforementioned and distinctly gnarly Roslavets, to whose music I’m afraid I have never warmed.

‘I’ve been playing Feinberg’s First and Second Sonatas, and have given a couple of performances of the Fourth,’ Hamelin continues with enthusiasm. ‘I really want to concentrate on the first six, which to me are the most convincing – even though he never published the Third. The music is really, really fascinating and I’m very pleased to say it has gotten very positive reactions. Many people hear echoes of Scriabin, particularly the Scriabin of the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas, and certainly pianistically they have some similarities. But by the Fourth Sonata Feinberg doesn’t sound like anyone else. You may at some point hear the same kind of harmonic individuality as Prokofiev in his wildest, most atonal moments, but even then, I find it’s very different in effect.’

Alas, we have no commercial recordings of Feinberg playing his own music, though he did make some home recordings late in life which Hamelin – inveterate collector of the arcane that he is – has encountered. Unfortunately, the resulting tapes were ‘more hum than music’, despite the quality of the playing.

But on the release front, it’s Morton Feldman that will follow the Rachmaninov/Medtner concertos, and a single work: For Bunita Marcus. ‘It’s a world that I love, even if I’m not sure why. I’m trying to write the notes for the disc at the moment and that’s proving to be extraordinarily difficult because there are so many things I want to say and such a variety of angles from which the piece can be approached. But it’s astonishing to me that a work that has so few notes on the surface can be so multi-layered. It’s more than 70 minutes long, uninterrupted, very sparse, quiet.’

Did he record it a single take? ‘I did, though it will need some editing. You have to, really, because you have to get the pace from the very first note.’ It’s a work equally demanding of the listener, the right head space and the right setting being more than usually paramount. ‘One of the extraordinary things about For Bunita Marcus it is that it completely revolutionised what we perceive a piano piece to be. It doesn’t fit into the accepted piano-recital framework – it has to be relegated to contemporary music festivals or some kind of special event because it has to stand alone, and it’s the kind of work that would disorientate a lot of listeners. Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum would be easier to programme because it’s an event. But with this piece, it’s not about the performer anymore, or the personality cult or the occasion. It’s about sound, time and space.’

This interview originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to the world's most influential classical music magazine, please visit:

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