Enough talk about Marc-André Hamelin's fast fingers

“I wish this stuff would be easier”

Photograph by Klaus Rudolph

“Contrary to what is constantly being said about me, I don’t enjoy playing difficult music,” Marc-André Hamelin said the other day over the phone from his home in Boston. “I wish this stuff would be easier.”
This claim is not entirely incredible. It is possible to imagine a mountain climber who simply likes the view and the fresh air, and wishes all the peaks he scales were flatter. But the least that can be said about Hamelin is that he puts up well with the difficulties life throws his way.

The Montreal-born pianist, 49, is one of the world’s foremost classical music soloists. His reputation for technical command of the keyboard is unparalleled. His mastery of music’s subtler and more enduring charms is, at last, beginning to be noticed as often as his fast fingers. Alex Ross, the New Yorker writer, has lauded Hamelin’s “monstrously brilliant technique and his questing, deep-thinking approach.” Ross rarely lets Hamelin sneak into Manhattan without sounding the alarm for New Yorker readers.

Why does everyone write about his technique? Simply because it’s often on display. The “stuff” he plays does happen to be difficult. “It’s just that the music I tend to like often ends up to be rather difficult because of its characteristics—its density, its orchestral character, its hard counterpoint sometimes.”
But this autumn Hamelin has nobody to blame but himself. Hyperion Records has just released his first CD of his own compositions, Études. It features his Ten Études in All the Minor Keys, and as the title suggests, he has left his fellow pianists a lot of homework.

Written in fits and starts over a quarter-century, a combination of tributes to great composer-pianists of the past mixed in with the odd inside joke, the Ten Études is a florid, extravagant, boisterous display of the pianist’s art. It kicks off with his signature trick, a performance of Chopin’s three A-minor études played simultaneously, and calms down only slightly from there. The U.K.’s Gramophone magazine calls it “some of the most witty, charming, entertaining, and devastatingly effective piano music” in a generation.

Hamelin does round out the CD with assorted short pieces, many playable by pianists of merely ordinary skill, some almost heart-stoppingly pretty. It is all unabashedly old-fashioned, and Hamelin admits he’s pleased that the recording’s arrival has caused such a buzz among pianists. “I do not write just for myself. There really, really would be no point. I don’t want the life for these pieces to stop after the recording or after my own performances. And if you look at YouTube, there’s quite a few young people who have attempted some of my pieces. It’s very gratifying. That’s exactly what I want.”

While pianists pore over the recording and scores of his work, Hamelin will continue to play the music of others on tour. His Canadian appearances in October—he will perform solo in Montreal and with orchestras in Toronto and Vancouver—will be heavy on the music of Mozart and Haydn. In recent years he has recorded Haydn, Brahms, Chopin and Schumann, helping to amend his reputation as a connoisseur of obscure early-20th-century romantics (Nikolai Medtner, anyone? Georgy Catoire?).

Here, the unfailingly courteous Hamelin is as tired of hearing distinctions drawn between his famous and lesser-known subjects as he is sick of being tagged a virtuoso. “I should probably say right off the bat that for me there is fundamentally no difference between traditional repertoire and non-traditional repertoire. Everybody wants to be immortal. What composer doesn’t have at least moderately high hopes of survival, and a place in the future of musical history?”

His own hopes remain those of a pianist more than a composer. It would be nice, he says, if the word “virtuoso” didn’t make its way into every single review. Hamelin continues to count victories of the heart above those of the fingers. “Critics do single out, often, what I think is essential, what I’ve tried to get across. And that’s really when you think that you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. There’s no greater feeling than to have been understood.”

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