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Marc-André Hamelin on DVD and CD

It’s all about the Music.
Works by Albeniz, Alkan, Busoni, Dukas, Godowsky, Hamelin, Kapustin, Liszt, Medtner.

Hyperion DVD-Video DVDA68000

Brahms - The Piano Quartets
No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; No. 2 in A major, Op. 26; No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60; Intermezzi, Op. 117
Marc-André Hamelin (piano) & Leopold String Trio (Thorsen, Power & Gould)
Hyperion - CDA67471/2


Schumann - Piano Quintet and String Quartet Op 41/3
Marc-André Hamelin (piano) & Takacs String Quartet

Hyperion - CDA67631


Two valuable Hyperion releases by Marc-André Hamelin are to be welcomed this month.

The first half of the DVD production is a TV documentary which overlays piano playing with interviews, gradually adding up to an intimate and wide ranging portrait of this very special pianist, a private person whom you gradually feel you are getting to know. It ranges over many themes and personalities, and (quoting the publicity material) includes 'interviews with Ronald Stevenson, Robert Rimm and Andrew Keener, plus Marc-André Hamelin performing music by Albéniz, Alkan, Busoni, Dukas, Godowsky, Hamelin himself, Kapustin, Liszt, Medtner, Rzewski and Schubert'.

But they are mainly only excerpts of the music; what is important are the insights you gradually acquire about composing and composer-pianists (Stevenson believes the two are indivisible). Andrew Keener has a lot to tell about the studio recording process (no apology for as many takes as it needs), and Hamelin himself pays tribute to his father, who had settled for a less risky and uncertain career path; Marc-André's mastery was beyond his wildestimaginings and gave him great satisfaction.

Part II is a more straightforward recital of complete pieces, punctuated by interview with Marc-André Roberge. There are additional useful extras, with more interviews and a concert performance of Busoni's piano concerto (4th movement only).

Overall, you gradually absorb this undemonstrative pianist's inner fire and his mission to recreate the music of the 'golden age' virtuoso composer–pianists, which he does in an unassuming manner with none of the familiar audience-grabbing tricks (perhaps the most extreme example of that recently has been Olli Mustonen).

And throughout the music examples in the documentary and the recital you marvel at the demonstration of economical movement around the keyboard and the essential relaxation which makes possible the tremendous energy expended; a superb object lesson in how to (try to) approach piano playing. Add to that artistic sensibility of a high order, and a prodigious memory at his service, and you have an example of human potential at its highest, at a level to challenge (and maybe exceed) the more popular and widely celebrated skills of the finest athletes, be they footballers, gymnasts or skaters.

The DVD is a curious amalgam; the insert leaflet is rudimentary, with three of its four pages devoted to the extensive Hyperion/Hamelin discography. And it is presented for viewing in an unusual way, with navigating timings in "start time" listings, illustrated. (It has since been pointed out to me that I'd overlooked that the recital tracks durations are given alongside the track information itself).

Brahms - The Piano Quartets & Schumann Piano Quintet

This exemplary new Hyperion CD of the three Brahms Piano Quartets is impeccably balanced; the conjunction of Canadian Hamelin with top British chamber music players Marianne Thorsen, Lawrence Power and Kate Gould is a dream recipe.

They were recorded by the team of Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon and there is none of the congestion which can happen in live performances of this tricky music; the verve of No 1's 'gypsy finale' is irresistible. Their account of No 3 (c.1856/1875) changed my previous disinterest in that hybrid work; a safe recommendation, whatever the competition. The CD has an ideal contrasting fill-up, a loving account of the three late Intermezzi, 'a tryptich of lullabies' (Calum MacDonald).

Hamelin joined with the Takacs Quartet for Schumann's piano quintet, a reliable combination who took four days in May 2009 to put down this assured account of a popular piano quintet which, however, takes a decided second place to Brahms' in my book. Actually, I preferred the third of the composer's Op 41 quartets, given a most affectionate performance, recorded to Hyperion's consistently high standard. Authoritative notes from Misha Donat.

For the string quartets, however, I would remind you also of the special Schumann/Rihm set by Trio Jean Paul (Ars Musici AM 1241-2) - "an essential purchase for anyone interested in either composer or both - as here juxtaposed, each illuminating the other".

Peter Grahame Woolf