on April 1, 2002
Marc-Andre Hamelin is universally acknowledged to be 'primus inter pares' among pianists living today, and Robert Rimm has written a first-rate book which explains why this is so, placing Hamelin into the context and rich legacy of the composer-pianists.
The core of Rimm's evaluation consists of four chapters which compare, contrast and illuminate the lives, careers and aethetics of The Eight: Alkan and Sorabji; Busoni and Godowsky; Feinberg and Scriabin; Medtner and Rachmaninov. The major "find" here is Samuel Feinberg, about whom much less is known by many of us than any of the other Eight. Rimm leaves us wishing to hear much more of this composer's music and of his recorded performances.
In these chapters, Rimm manages to deconstruct several myths and misunderstandings about each of these provocative musicians, while calibrating, aligning and amplifying the essence of each. His observation of the correspondences, contrasts, parallels and congruent aesthetics of each of the eight is insightful, and leads to his core thesis: That pianistic virtuosity, as shared and practiced by them (and upon which their public fame largely exists, to the dismay of each), exists to serve the music, through their consumate musicianship, and is not an end to itself. Indeed, their virtuosity must be seen as the necessary precursor to their art; none was satisfied to stop at the "merely virtuosic", but instead recognized that virtuosity was the mandatory platform for the creation and recreation of great music.
These four core chapters lead to a fifth: "From Alkan to Hamelin", which examines Marc's career to date and his place in this distinguished lineage of composers and performers. [NB: I feel comfortable using Mr. Hamelin's first name, with respect, in writing about him, for I was fortunate last year to have met and briefly talked with him after a pair of recitals he gave at the Portland (OR) State University Piano Recital Series. These recitals included the music of Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and, yes, Alkan's Concerto!... plus encores from his then-just released "Kaleidoscope" CD (Hyperion CDA67275), a direct successor to "The Composer-Pianists" CD (CDA67050) which is in turn the companion recording to this very book. Marc is a most cordial and approachable individual, totally without pretense, and unfazed by those who insist on referring to him as "a super-virtuoso". Our conversations were brief, following his generous performances and after he tolerated lines of autograph-seeking well-wishers -- I'm sure he'd not recognize me in a crowd, yet I left feeling like I'd met a new friend.]
Rimm's chapter on Hamelin (who is indeed his friend and collaborator in this book) examines Marc's own views of The Eight (and others), his championship of their art and music, and his own recognition of virtuosity as an element of musicianship itself. This chapter is perhaps the gem of the book: it is constructively analytical, not hyperventilating with hero-worship (difficult to do when faced with Marc's executant talents), and comfortably conversational. Marc offers his own insights, including a clear-eyed personal view of his own performance skills and technique, on concertizing and composing, and the push-pull demands of a varied and creative career.
The chapters on the pitfalls of criticism, the liabilities of virtuosity and the art of transcription are also strong, interweaving a fine counterpoint of notions and ideas again at the foundations of The Eight's (plus one's) aesthetics and lives. The weakest chapter is "The Erotic Muse" -- I suppose that, especially in light of Scriabin's world view of mysticism and sexuality, this is somewhat of an obligatory chapter. I'm no prude (nor is there anything the least bit titillating herein), but I found that this chapter could be ripped without loss from the book. Fortunately, after examining certain views of how (some) music(s) and sex are (somehow) linked or of "the same" human impulse, Rimm ultimately comes to the obvious conclusion that sex and music are really two different things altogether. I'll need to re-read this chapter in a few months to see what, if anything, I missed.
Along the way, we encounter other musicians, composers and pianists of note, including Liszt (of course), Prokofiev, Ives, Horowitz, Kapustin, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Earl Wild, Alistair Hinton, Radu Lupu, Zoltan Kocsis and Stephen Hough, who provides an enticing foreword plus complementary remarks in various chapters. Hough is, of course, a peer, compatriot and colleague of Hamelin's -- boy, a duo-recital &/or recording by these two would be almost too much of a good thing! Hyperion, are you paying attention?
Bonus points for the appendices: Complete Solo Piano Works for each of The Eight and for Hamelin (an emerging composer of note), plus a Discography for each who has left a recorded legacy (Alkan's the exception; he died just before Edison put cactus-needle to wax) ...and of course, Hamelin's own discography is fortunately a catalog-in-progress.
This is mandatory reading for all pianists and other musicians, professional and serious amatuers (like me!), and anyone else who wants to understand the fascinating hold that virtuoso musicians have over us all. Bravo, and thank you, Mr. Rimm!