SCHUBERT Piano Sonata No 21. 4 Impromptus
Marc-André Hamelin is one of those artists who warrant frequent attention. Now 56 and presumably at the peak of his career, he has over a hundred recordings currently available of music by more than a hundred composers. Yet his voracious musical curiosity, always well beyond the most venturesome of his colleagues, has yet to be sated. Perhaps most remarkable is Hamelin’s incessant artistic growth. Never knowing quite what to expect next from him, one is frequently pleasantly surprised, when not downright astonished.
His latest offering is Schubert’s last sonata, a work that has figured in his recitals for years, with the second set of Impromptus. This is spacious Schubert, secure, august and unrushed. Throughout this vividly characterised B flat Sonata, many heart-gripping moments seem tinged with the nostalgia of leave-taking, though free of bitterness or self-pity. These are counterbalanced by stretches of buoyant joy and unalloyed serenity. In all the variety of Hamelin’s generally relaxed tempos, the musical thread lives and breathes, albeit cooled from time to time with what seems an almost existential loneliness. When he repeats the exposition of the first movement, we are grateful. The development has moments of disquiet on a par with the middle section of the Adagio of the great C major Quintet.
But it may be in the Sonata’s Andante that the originality of Hamelin’s reading becomes fully evident. With perfect poise, exquisite voice-leading lends the opening theme a chaste, heroic, noble character. Rather than submitting to the inevitable, here grief seems to be faced with equanimity. The Scherzo decisively turns the page to kinaesthetic delights, with a self-consciously rustic Trio serving to heighten the movement’s grace and delicacy. In the finale, Hamelin resists the temptation to become encumbered with detail and instead flings wide the windows to pristine air, sunshine, soaring movement and immense vistas.
The same conceptual freshness informs the Impromptus. For instance, the meltingly ardent A flat Impromptu is delivered with a hushed intimacy, the triplet motion of its contrasting trio section suggesting the delicate unfolding of rose petals. The Rosamunde Variations tread gracefully and abound with vivid contrasts. The final F minor Impromptu seems at first cautious, until we perceive that lurking just beneath its diffident surface is something akin to terror.
This is not perhaps a recording to replace your favourite Schubert, be it by Schnabel, Haskil, Serkin, Curzon, Pires, Andsnes, Badura-Skoda or Barnatan. But Hamelin’s thoughtful originality, supported by his fully realised execution and sincerity of purpose, makes his contribution a worthy complement to them all. Very highly recommended.