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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Protean Pianism

CLASSICAL MUSIC LOVES SPECIALISTS, or, to put it a better way, is most comfortable with performers who are easy to pigeonhole. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made a career of resisting such definition, and underscores this with two new Hyperion recordings.

He’s only in one of the two Shostakovich pieces recorded by the Takács Quartet, but they, too, are showing their versatility, introducing this composer to a catalogue of CDs that includes works by Bartók, Brahms, Schubert and (of course) Beethoven.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 dates from 1944 and reveals more of the personality that would inform the 13 quartets to come. It’s melodic, yes, but it’s a piece of contrasts and melancholy. The no-nonsense approach typical of this ensemble sits very well with Shostakovich, and you can hear its success in the work’s finale, which takes a series of surprising turns that, thanks to this interpretation, accumulates a logic.

Hamelin joins them for the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, a five-movement work that dates from 1940. It’s a little breezier, with an opening prelude and fugue that presages the astonishing cycle of 24 that would follow. The pianist displays his interpretive skill at the start, setting a compelling mood with his first few notes; by the time he enters as one of the fugal voices, his presence has turned ominous. It’s an uncomfortably passionate sound.

It turns sardonic in the subsequent scherzo, and from there to the end the piano and strings are more in accord – particularly in the exquisite intermezzo.

If you’ve spent any time at a piano keyboard, you’ll appreciate Hamelin’s wizardry even more. And if you’ve spent any such time, you’ve encountered Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 545. It’s thought to be easy to play, but to line up its elements as sensibly (and, seemingly, inevitably) as does Hamelin is to have a faultless technique. And the interpretive wit to know how to travel among those elements. Listen to his first-movement recapitulation of K. 545 to understand how a successful journey can feel.

Hamelin’s two-CD set of Mozart Sonatas covers the better-known works, including the other C-Major sonata, K. 330. Disc one opens with the horn calls of the Sonata in D Major, K. 576, which develops into dizzying runs and arpeggiated figures under Hamelin’s fleet fingers.

Although we don’t get the Sonata in A Major, K. 331, of “Rondo alla Turca” fame, the eight sonatas here are more than enough to satisfy a Mozart craving, especially when played with such transparency. Hamelin takes directives like “cantabile” and “grazioso” quite to heart.

The Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, would be a fitting finish to the program, with its long lines of minor-key wistfulness spun out so deftly, but there’s an even more thoughtful coda in the Fantasia in D Minor, K. 397, which sounds like a warm-up to a Chopin nocturne until it reaches its light-hearted, very Mozartean finish.

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet; String Quartet No. 2
Marc-André Hamelin, pianist, with the Takács Quartet

Mozart: Eight Piano Sonatas (and Extras)
Marc-André Hamelin, pianist


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