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Beguiling Debussy

October 30, 2007

Mark-André Hamelin’s appearances have become a regular feature in San Francisco’s concert life. Moreover, it seems that the Canadian-born, Philadelphia-based pianist is building some continuity into his San Francisco concert series. Last year’s winning encore (four pieces from Debussy’s second book of Preludes) became the glorious second half of the program presented by San Francisco Performances last Tuesday at Herbst Theatre.
Hamelin delivered the whole of Debussy’s Preludes, Book II (1912-1913) with exhilarating virtuosity and rare sensitivity of touch. The 12 pieces in the collection have titles that allude to landscapes, exotic locales and artifacts, literary and visual protagonists and images, and real-life characters and scenes. The titles are suggestive rather than prescriptive, placed unassumingly at the end of each piece in parentheses and preceded by triple dots. The sonorities that Debussy elicits from the piano are strikingly innovative. The inspiration for these new sounds came, in large part, from an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, which he had heard at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris.

The resulting piano style is essentially percussive, but more in the sense of resonance than accentuation. What happens to the sound after the hammers strike the keys is perhaps even more important than during the initial moment of contact. The amplified harmonics resonating in the air, the ringing brilliance of vibrations, the stunning spectrum of tone colors are enormously pleasing to the ear, and Hamelin proved himself an ultimate master of Debussy’s world.
Dazzling Control and Variety
The first two preludes, “Brouillards” (Mists) and “Feuilles mortes” (Dead leaves), with their fragility and luminous pianissimo, were followed by the sharply etched third prelude, “La puerta del Vino” (The wine gate), which is imbued with intoxicating rhythmic drive. At the beginning of this last piece, Debussy directs the performer to play avec de brusque opposition d’extrême violence et de passionnée doucer (with sudden contrasts of extreme violence and passionate tenderness). In Hamelin’s hands, the tonal and emotional range of these miniatures was recreated perfectly.

Just as beguiling were the next three preludes, Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers), Bruyères (Heather), and “Général Lavine”-excentric (according to the composer’s own eccentric English spelling). Hamelin offered a limpid, ultimately refined account of “The fairies” and “Heather” before plunging into Debussy’s somewhat rowdy tribute to Edward La Vine, a famed American clown who performed at the Marigny Theater on the Champs-Élysées. The comical cakewalk provided a splendid antidote to the exquisite finesse of the previous two miniatures.

In the remaining preludes, Hamelin continued to navigate deftly between the melting away, barely whispering pianississimo of Ondine and Canope (Canopic urn) the robust Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq., the precise delicacy of Les tierces alternèes (Alternating thirds), and the virtuosic pyrotechnics of Feux d’Artifice (Fireworks).

It was all the more surprising, then, that the exceptional pianism, clarity of execution, and perfect control that Hamelin exhibited in Debussy were not always present in the first, “B-minor” half of the program. Only Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, No. 32, the program’s opener, rose to the highest standards Hamelin set in the Debussy. The witty grace and eloquent rhetoric of Haydn’s music received a superb treatment from Hamelin. The final Presto was actually so fast that listening to it was like watching an acrobat recklessly running on a tightrope. Hamelin did not make a single misstep, however. And despite the dizzying velocity, his cadences remained gentle and his phrasing supple.
Unseasoned Chopin
Chopin’s Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter. It came out almost half-baked, as if Hamelin had either just learned it or had not played it for years and and recently decided to restore it by ear. Unlike the marvelously polished Haydn and Debussy, Hamelin’s Chopin was uncharacteristically casual. Notes were dropped or changed, counterpoints muddled. The pedal often came to the rescue but, instead of saving the day, it blurred the lines and smudged the harmonies. Of course, there were some fine moments, such as the poignant, sincerely narrated, secondary theme in the first movement and the reprise of the Scherzo, with its translucent cascades and ghostly conclusion.

But the rest of the sonata performance was mostly disappointing. The middle section of the slow movement is a true test of any pianist’s awareness of the textural depth in Chopin’s writing. The incessantly running eighth-notes in the right hand can become annoying if they are not toned down into a murmuring flow that carries the floating long notes in the top voice. As subtly as Hamelin layered the most complex textures in the Debussy, the melodic line in the middle of the Largo was overrun by the myriads of exasperating eighths. The finale was fast, and also rather messy, overpedaled, and peppered with incidental notes.

Fortunately, after the intermission, the superbly played Preludes put the concert back on track, and two encores served as delicious, light-hearted toppers. These were Hamelin’s transcriptions of recordings of the famous Bulgarian-French pianist Alexis Weissenberg playing his arrangements of songs by the French chansonnier Charles Trenet. Hamelin performed En avril à Paris (April in Paris) and Monsieur, vous oubliez votre cheval (Sir, you’re forgetting your horse). The first was a sweet waltz, the second a perky, prancing tune, both thoroughly charming and sprinkled generously with virtuosic flourishes. Weissenberg made four other Trenet arrangements and, with any luck, Hamelin will play the remaining group on his next visit to San Francisco.

Anatole Leikin is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published in various musicological journals and essay collections worldwide and recorded piano works of Scriabin, Chopin, and Cope. His critically acclaimed books The Performing Style of Alexander Scriabin and The Mystery of Chopin's Préludes were recently published by Ashgate Publishing (UK) and reissued by Routledge (UK). Dr. Leikin also serves as an editor for The Complete Chopin — A New Critical Edition (Peters, UK).