After reading enthusiastic notices in Gramophone Magazine (Bryce Morrison) and here on Amazon (Messrs. Scott and Morrison below), I ordered Marc-Andre Hamelin's IBERIA with considerable eagerness. Yet when I ultimately listened to it, my bottom-line reaction was disappointment. Yes, I instantly admired many aspects of Hamelin's work, but as early as "Almeria" I had a nagging sense that something was missing -- and a large something at that; by the time I'd reached "Jerez" I was fairly sure where the problem lay, and after auditioning the whole set a second time through, I'd confirmed my fears.
Down to cases. Hamelin's Steinway has a lean, pingy tone and a fast, light action. Thanks to this instrument (and to shrewdly chosen tempos), Hamelin produces exceptionally clear, fastidious playing in all the knotty finger passages, so "El Corpus en Sevilla" and "El Albaicin" are as shipshape, crisp, and transparent as you're ever likely to hear. But there's trouble with the basic sound itself. First, due to a combination of the instrument's limitations and his own, Hamelin fails to generate an authentic, full-bodied fortissimo anywhere on these discs -- when "Triana" calls for grit and power, de Larrocha easily outplays him, to say nothing of such oldsters as Rosenthal, Backhaus, or Rubinstein.
Second and even more crucially, the many cantilena episodes point up a major hole in Hamelin's technical apparatus. To oversimplify the matter while furnishing a sizeable grain of truth: he can't play legato and he can't turn a phrase. Listen to the cantabile playing in "Evocacion," "Rodena," "Almeria," and "Jerez": his tone is thin and glassy, there's no real line, and dynamics are frequently restricted to pp-ppp -- which means that nuances or inflections are marginal, and such niceties as pedal tintings, echo effects, and tapered cadences are nowhere to be heard. True, the snap and tidiness of Hamelin's passagework often saves things, but not always -- among the fillers here, the meditative, quarter-hour "La Vega" comes off as bland, colorless, and interminable.
So what's wrong with this picture? Well, a pianist with a poor sound, according to the pedagogue Pedro de Alcantara, "may have great dexterity, which is but one aspect of technique, but he does not have a great technique. A complete technique implies the ability to play legato and sostenuto, in a wide range of dynamics and articulations, in every imaginable colour." Unfortunately this kind of balanced, encompassing mechanism is a scarce commodity these days -- Hamelin's shortcomings, sadly, are shared by many of our current East Coast conservatory products (and even by some big-name outsiders, e.g, Kissin).
It's dismaying, too, that Hamelin could follow so closely on Rubinstein's heels (not only here but in his Szymanowski and Villa-Lobos projects) and glean so little from the experience -- especially since Rubinstein's work models just what Hamelin most needs to learn: production of a huge, deep, columnar fortissimo, as well as round, floating, prismatic tone from ppp to f (the equivalent of a great singer's mezza voce). At the very least Hamelin needs to consider giving up the ease and safety of his shallow-action Steinway and adjusting to a more neutral specimen with greater solidity and range: with such instruments, after all, several prior greats -- not only Rubinstein but the likes of Gieseking, Novaes, Rachmaninoff, Richter, and Kempff -- had no trouble generating the round, full-throated legato phrases that many of today's pianists can't.
The other fillers here are of variable interest: Hamelin is too earnest and literal to extract much humor from Yvonne's comic stumblings, while he's small-boned and dainty (though immaculate) in the inevitable appendix of "Navarra," a piece Albeniz disliked and abandoned. It's normally heard in a completion by his protege Severac, but Hamelin presents an alternative: an extended version composed by William Bolcom back in his student days. Whereas Severac's edition is in simple ABA song form, Bolcom stretches the piece into a sonata structure that often sounds merely busy and clattery. And since it winds up in exactly the same place as Severac's, the advantage is unclear.
Where do you go for your desert-island IBERIA? Needless to say, all of de Larrocha's recordings are authoritative, but for power, dash, humor, earthiness, and a generous palette of gaudy colors, her 1962 Madrid traversal (EMI 764505) is arguably the richest, fullest statement of this music. This set also includes Albeniz's instantly adorable SUITE ESPANOLA plus de Larrocha's zesty "Navarra" in the standard version. As for integral versions that skip "Navarra," the top runner-up is the little-known Ciccolini set from 1966 (EMI 76906), balletic, muscular, as transparent as Hamelin's but with a good deal more color and richness of line.
So does this mean Messrs. Morrison, Scott, and Morrison are mistaken about Hamelin's new offering? Not entirely. As a backup set this release has several things to hold the interest: lovely recorded sound, offbeat filler pieces, and plenty of preternaturally neat fingerwork.