We are living in an age of phenomenal pianism, one in which pianists in general tend to have almost superhuman technical abilities and in which many of them are exploring hitherto unknown corners of the piano literature, to the amazement and delight of concert-goers. Among them, perhaps primus inter pares, is Marc-André Hamelin who has recorded four dozen CDs and has appeared all over the world in acclaimed concerts. Jan Schmidt-Garre, the producer of this DVD, has begun a series he calls 'Legato: The World of the Piano', of which this is the second volume. The first was devoted to Boris Berezovsky Legato: The World of the Piano, Vol. 1. I rated that issue quite highly. But this one is even better for two reasons: Hamelin plays an exquisite 90-minute recital as well as talking intelligently, movingly, fascinatingly for 100 minutes with Schmidt-Garre, a skillful interviewer who knows pianism in and out.
In the interview sections Hamelin talks about what goes into preparing a work for performance. He is shown, three months before the concert we see on this DVD, sight-reading the Haydn Sonata No. 31 in E Major -- this is not one of the works included in his recent 2CD set of Haydn Sonatas, but is included on the recital on this DVD -- and talking about various passages in the work as he encounters them. He winningly comments that the presto Finale 'should be longer because it's so much fun.' He also is shown talking with Schmidt-Garre about the Debussy Préludes, Book II, giving his reasons for choices he made in his interpretations, illustrating at the piano.
The conversation with Schmidt-Garre is in two parts. One is called 'Portrait', and lasts about thirty minutes. The rest, actually probably considered a 'bonus feature' is 70 minutes of unstructured (and fascinating) conversation which did not make it into the 'Portrait'. He talks at length about his early training in Montréal and his years with his main teacher, Harvey Wedeen. And also about his tendency to have recorded a lot of out-of-the-way repertoire. (I think this whole project was probably shown on German TV minus the 'bonus' conversation.)
The centerpiece of the DVD is a recital given June 29, 2007 by Hamelin, a mere five months before its release. It occurred in the Philharmonie in Essen during the 2007 Ruhr Piano Festival. The program consists of the previously mentioned Haydn sonata, Chopin's Third Sonata in B Minor and the book of Debussy Préludes. Encores include one of Hamelin's own études, No. 7, 'After Tchaikovsky' (for left hand alone), and a couple of arrangements from George Gershwin's Songbook -- 'Do, Do, Do' and 'Liza'. (There is also a bonus of Hamelin in his rehearsal studio playing his cheeky 'Ring-Tone Waltz'.)
Hamelin has taken some shots for emphasizing fairly unknown music in his concerts and recordings, and it has often been said that he isn't very effective in standard repertoire. This recital is taken from the precise center of the repertoire and, for me at least, his performances of all three main works were revelatory. The Haydn, like those sonatas on the CD set, is so clearly articulated and yet so subtly shaped and withal so good-humored that I found myself smiling throughout. The Chopin sonata is utterly exquisite, both thundering in spots and lyrical in others. The Scherzo has as much snap and brio as I've ever heard it and the Largo that follows it sung meltingly.
But for me the highlight is the set of Debussy préludes. I'd never heard Hamelin play Debussy before but his well-known ability to play with a full palette of colors comes in to play here. His pianissimi, feather-light, in the first piece 'Brouillards' ('Fog') are impressionistic in the literal sense: one can see and feel the fog. Hamelin does more than pay lip service to the indication in 'La Puerta del vino' that the pianist play it 'with brusque oppositions of extreme violence and with passionate sweetness.' 'General Lavine - excentrique' is played more slowly that we are used to hearing it and in conversation Hamelin explains that when one plays it faster Lavine's eccentricity gets smoothed over; his way works. 'Feux d'artifice' is simply amazing. It is, of course, a virtuoso showpiece but Hamelin makes it more than that, and somehow he lets us SEE the show of fireworks, including the hiss of the fuses. Marvelous.
I cannot recommend this DVD highly enough, not only for Hamelin's legion of admirers, but for anyone who loves piano music.
Picture format: NTSC - 16:9; Sound: PCM Stereo; Dolby 5.1; DTS 5.1; (AC3 for the portrait and interview); Subtitle languages: English, German, French, English; (Interview conducted in English); Region code 0 (worldwide); Disc format: DVD 9; Running time: Portrait, 30 mins; Concert, 90 mins; Interview, 70 mins - Total time: 190 mins.