The quaint city of Montréal is becoming increasingly known for its stringent language laws, its semi-nude student protests and hockey fanaticism. Unbeknown to most is that it has, for generations, nurtured and produced an unusually high number of internationally renowned pianists. The late Oscar Peterson was born and reared in the Little Burgundy district, later discovered at the Alberta Lounge, while the studio of Yvonne Hubert, a pupil of Alfred Cortot, featured no less than Louis Lortie, Janina Fialkowska, Ronald Turini (Vladimir Horowitz’ favorite pupil), pedagogue Marc Durand, and of course, Marc-André Hamelin.
Wednesday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, the Montréal-born Hamelin delivered Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left-hand in D major (1930), a work for which the composer exclaimed, “Even after I die, no one should dare transcribe it for two hands,”. Described by an awestruck audience member Wednesday, “Most pianists can’t play the Left-hand like Hamelin using both hands,”.
Hamelin is indeed admired by his audiences, but it is worth noting that he is also a pianist’s pianist. In addition to playing and recording the outskirts of the piano-repertoire, it is a simple joy to witness one who has at his disposal infinite means. Hamelin’s deft mechanism allows him to conjure voices and meet deadlines at the keyboard that are rarely rendered with such clarity, such precision and fulfillment. Chords in the Rallentando were gracefully given, finished and colored to a remarkable degree, and glissandos were taken ferociously.
While the attack at the keyboard is always meticulously measured, the smallest gradients of sound chiseled and distinct, Hamelin also brings a composer’s insight to his performances. Using glimmers of color and countless shadings of pedal, the Piu lento was sung with serene lyricism, attention to harmony, and felt for its beauty.
The story of the Concerto for the Left Hand is familiar to most: dedicated to the brother of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul, who lost his right-arm in the Great War. What’s less commonly known is that Ravel was livid following the premiere of the work, which Paul took with untold musical liberties. Wittgenstein owned the sole performing rights to the piece until 1937, and only six years later, with Jacques Février’s performance, was Ravel finally pleased to hear his creation.
The final offering on the Wednesday program, which included Carter’s Variations for Orchestra (1955) and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) was Ravel’s La Valse (1920), a work of ravishing beauty. Led by David Robertson, the 2014 artistic director of the Sydney Symphony, the celebrated piece was rhythmically bound, stretched by the colors and warm singing of the string-section, and achieved an elegance that will not soon be forgotten.
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