Pianist of the North

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Marc-Andre Hamelin, the Montreal-born pianist extraordinaire, was the host and performer AND commentator at a wonderful event at Le Poisson Rouge a couple of nights ago.  I was happy to see people lined up on Bleecker Street around the corner onto Thomson, waiting to get in.  The occasion was the release of a new CD of Hamelin’s own compositions – including part of his set of “character pieces” – he wrote one in each minor key. 


Hamelin has triumphed.  He struggled for a number of years, burdened by his reputation as a ‘virtuoso,’ a word he dislikes due to its frequent misuse.  He was dismissed, by some, as a ‘lightweight’ artist with a great technique.  His triumph is that he has now become recognized for what he is: a highly individualistic, first-rate musical explorer...with that great technique.  No harm in that.


It seems to have been a Haydn CD that helped to put him over the top.  He had been recording (wonderfully!) a lot of lesser-known, underappreciated 19th  and early 20th century composers like Medtner and Alkan, Ornstein and Rzewski.  This was music worth recording, and it also distinguished Hamelin for playing some little-recorded repertoire.  But to ascend to the higher ranks, he had to go a little more mainstream, and Haydn seems to have fit the bill.  He was nominated for a Grammy for his Haydn Sonata recording – a gem, by the way—and it attracted a wide audience. Critics responded, too.


Hamelin, like Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson and the Bach pianist Angela Hewitt, is from Canada.  I don’t know what they do to their pianists up there.  Maybe it’s so cold, they stay in and practice more than usual. 


You should go to hear him any chance you get. The recordings are great, but the live appearances are dazzling both for their natural musicality, coloristic variety and pyrotechnics, quite astounding, really – and for the charm and modesty of the unassuming man who makes it all happen.  Now he is a hyphenate, a pianist-composer, with and we’re better for it.


Marc-Andre Hamelin's Etudes is available here.


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