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Unveiling the Enigma: A Tête-â-tête with Marc-André Hamelin

Marc André Hamelin in Toursky Theater, Marseille, France.

A native of Montreal who now makes his home in Boston, Marc-Andre Hamelin is noted for his expansive repertoire, virtuosic technique, and thoughtful expression. The 47-year-old pianist studied at the Ecole Vincent-d'Indy in Montreal and Temple University in Philadelphia; his teachers include Yvonne Hubert, Harvey Wedeen, and Russell Sherman. He won the Carnegie Hall International Competition for American Music in 1985, and he has received numerous awards for his recordings, including 12 prizes from the Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, six Juno awards, and eight Grammy nominations. He is an officer of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier de l'Ordre national du Quebec.

Marc-Andre Hamelin is a classicist, a tone-poet of the piano capable of coaxing fine shadings from the instrument even when playing the most demanding repertoire. A lover of the enigmatic, he has been a champion of lesser- known works, performing and recording pieces by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Paul Dukas, Nicolai Kapustin, and Pantcho Vladigerov, among others. His performances leave listeners fascinated by the deeply felt, noble expression in his playing. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his repertoire, thoughts on technique and interpretation, and his approach to performance.

The interview

Marc as a small child

Many concertgoers treat you primarily as a super-virtuoso, whose repertory consists of works that hardly anyone dares to play. In recent years the standard literature has played an increasingly significant role in your programs. Are you prepared to reveal to us whether this change represents a new phase in your life as an artist?

Many people know me only through my recordings, which have emphasized rather unusual literature that is not very well known and not often played. But if people come to my concerts they realize that the standard repertoire usually forms about one half of any program I present. Of course there are some exceptions to this rule, but I always try to have a fair balance.

I have recorded quite a bit of offbeat repertoire primarily because small labels need a niche, and they often have a better chance selling unusual repertoire. This was true of Hyperion, and they've given me great license to explore the piano repertoire. Ideally, I want to expand the public's consciousness about the immense amount of works that have been written for the piano - it is endless, and you can always find some truly wonderful things. Now, I think that it will be necessary career-wise for me to strike a better balance in my recordings between standard and non-standard repertoire, simply because I can't go on forever doing things that nobody knows.

To respond to the virtuoso question, I have actually never set out to play difficult music just because it is difficult. I'm not onstage to prove my manhood or flex my muscles. I'm onstage to share the miracle of human creativity with the audience, and perhaps to share something wonderful that they may have missed. I'm here to present it, and if an audience doesn't like it, that's fine, but at least they get a chance to hear it. To me it's also a celebration of the possibilities of recital programming-many programs these days are rather stale. For example, we are presently being oversaturated with Rachmaninoff, and that's a shame. As wonderful and essential as Rachmaninoffs music is, you'd think that it's the only thing that exists. There is of course a great deal more.

It may surprise many people to know that I do not enjoy playing difficult music. I tend to have a penchant for orchestral and dense contrapuntal textures at the keyboard, and of course these pieces will usually be very difficult, and will seem unplayable, whatever that word means. If I think a piece is good and it's very difficult then I'll go to whatever lengths I can to prepare it. I'll just keep bulldozing until I get it done, to speak very inelegantly. I mean, how can I enjoy playing something like the Alkan concerto in the dead heat of summer when I end up a puddle on the floor? I'd much rather play a Mozart sonata, where that usually doesn't happen! But Alkan's larger works, to take one example, are really masterpieces of their kind and people need to find out about them.

Marc with his mother's cat "Bip" near Montreal.

Your interpretation of Albeniz has imaginative use of touch, abundant richness of tone color, and multi-layered polyphony, all while portraying melancholy and ecstasy. Please tell us a bit more about the origin of the CD recording of the "Iberia" cycle and your corning to terms with the piano style of Albeniz.

As a child, I was aware that there was something called the Iberia Suite, although I only ever heard "Triana," which my father could play parts of. But as any pianist who has ever tried to play it can tell you, the piece goes alright until about the middle, where it really starts getting hairy, and Albeniz is up to his old tricks again, having the hands fly all over the place and getting tangled. My father only had the score for the second book, so I didn't know any of the others. He later bought the other three books, so I was able to get to know the others a little better.

In 2000 I gave a recital at Skidmore College in Saratoga, NY, and met Pola Baytieman, a member of the faculty who had recently played the complete Iberia in concert and recorded it. She alerted me to the existence of an Urtext edition that Schott in Spain put out, along with a facsimile edition. I managed to get my hands on both, and I became very enthusiastic about working on the whole cycle, knowing that there finally was an edition that really was much closer to Albeniz's wishes. The edition that every pianist had been working from until then was the 1st edition, which was published in France-the "Edition Mutuelle"-and it was full of mistakes and omissions.

It was wonderful to see what Albeniz really wrote, and it's very revealing. On almost every page you find many new things, and of course many corrections. Some of these mistakes, such as a few incorrect accidentals, even found their way into Alicia de Larrocha's recording, as she didn't have access to the correct sources.

This is extremely full-blooded and passionate music, which really expresses the Latin spirit to the core. Albeniz notates the work in an extreme, even superfluous way. In a forte passage, for example, you might find a forte on every beat. There is one 3/ 8 measure in "EI Albaicin" in which each of the eighth note beats has a ritardando written in each hand, so there are six "rits" in that bar! I find that quite amusing, but in a way it suggests something a lot more strongly than a single ritardando would. "EI Polo" has a passage of eleven bars with thirty fff indications! Of course, one or two would have sufficed, and that's what we find in the first edition. Albeniz wanted to push performers into expressing themselves as fully as possible. 

After a performance with Les Violons du Roy in Montreal.

You also play the piano music of Paul Dukas, the composer of the famous orchestral work The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Piano teachers may not realize that he also wrote a set of variations and a sonata for the piano.

I've known the piano sonata for more than 30 years-I discovered it when I was 16, in my first year at music school. I discovered the score and a recording in the library, and somehow it struck a chord, even at that young age. I worked on it a little bit, but I didn't perform it until years later.

The style in itself is very close to Franck's harmonic and emotional world, but it is much more extended than anything Franck ever wrote for the piano. We should feel lucky enough that Dukas gave us this really wonderful edifice of a work. I really see it as a cathedral, almost. It is quite long-about 45 minutes-and it could be thought of as the first great piano sonata of the twentieth century.

The first movement is a very brooding Moderato in E- flat minor-dark writing devoid of optimism. The second movement is in simple ABA form, although the development is quite extensive. There's more and more ornamentation and filling out of texture as the movement progresses. It starts in quarter notes, moves to triplets, and graduates to sextuplets at the recapitulation. It has a beautifully harmonious texture. Someone once characterized it as being something like a man gathering experience throughout a lifetime.

Then we come to the Scherzo, also in ABA form, which features an alternating-hands martellato technique in the A section. This movement contains not only the most remarkable part of the work, but also one of the strangest passages in the entire piano literature. The music slows down in the B section; the trio, a fugato, is sempre pianissimo. It is so tonally tenuous as to strongly suggest atonality, and it is terrifying, macabre music. I really find no equal to this passage in almost the entire literature. Then, reassuringly, the A section comes back. The fourth movement has a lengthy introduction, briefly quoting the Hammerklavier Sonata. The grand, heroic finale has many beautiful and memorable themes that bring the work to a close in an optimistic blaze of glory.

Years ago I met Pantcho Vladigerov, a fabulous pianist who was a master of the Bulgarian school of composition and the teacher of Alexis Weissenberg. In Vladigerov's style we experience particular scents and colors of Eastern European, Arabic and Greek music, characterized by unusual, exotically irregular Balkan rhythms and the use of Greek and old Slavic melodies. You have played his Sonatina Concertante several times. What drew you to Vladigerov's music?

Music either touches you or it doesn't. In this case I immediately sensed the goodness of the music; the communicative abilities spoke to me. The harmonies are quite complicated, but also very enchanting. I realized right away that it would be really quite a task to popularize this music, which is not published in this part of the world. The best thing I can do is record a CD and see what happens. And I hope that someone will take up reprinting the music in the West, because it's fully deserving of wider exposure.

I know I'll be attacked for this, but I find it rather sad that some young pianist's idea of fun is to play Ginastera, who I really don't like much. It teaches young pianists to play percussively and really not much more. I guess it satisfies their primary impulses for rhythm. But I think somebody like Vladigerov is infinitely more rewarding to explore. When you discover a composer like Vladigerov, who has written so much, it takes time to find what you think has the best chance of imprinting itself into the public's consciousness. The music was obviously written by a terrific pianist with a profound love and enthusiasm for music, and that's what sustains me. Sometimes you read through music and you're not really sure whether the composer had his or her heart in really making something artistic, but with Vladigerov it's very definite. 

You are a collector of unknown and, in part, unpublished manuscripts, and you pay particular attention to the origin, the background, and the context of the compositions that you wish to include in your repertory. Tell us more about your collections and your passion for rummaging through antiquities and seeking out neglected works and old editions.

My father was a reasonably good amateur pianist, and he had a good basic collection of scores-a fairly good sampling of the basic repertoire, with some exceptions. There was not a lot of Schubert, and almost no Scriabin actually. At that time, some things were not as readily available in the Montreal area, and music stores would not do special orders. As soon as I had a little pocket money I started to spend it on records and on sheet music. I was always very, very curious to examine other styles, other ways of writing for the piano, and always looking for the next golden piece, I suppose.

How do you keep pieces so fresh and so vital even after performing them many times?

I take great pleasure in introducing the public to works they might not have known before. If you consider yourself as a guide, it forces you to highlight certain things and demonstrate how beautiful the music is. I try to remind myself in every single performance of the miracle of human creativity, in this case the miracle of composition. This sounds trite, but I feel it very deeply, that the act of composition is really a true miracle. I can't explain it. One of my friends told me once that it's very clear that I'm more interested in composers than in pianists, and that's very true. I'm usually much more interested in finding out about a particular work through a score than in listening to someone's performance of it. This doesn't mean that I don't listen to recordings or go to concerts, but I find exploring scores fascinating enough in itself. There's a lot more information in not only in the markings themselves, but in what they suggest. If you read between the lines, you can find a whole lot more. 

Marc waiting to perform on the BBC's In Tune in London.

I would be interested in knowing how you developed your phenomenal technique. I know that, building on your God-given virtuosic capabilities and your enormous elasticity (as Heinrich Neuhaus has said: "Souplesse avant tout"), you have come to terms with the Blanchet exercises, many of them for the left hand alone (!), which are little known here. To what extent have these exercises influenced your pianism and helped you, for example, to manage the Godowsky etudes?

Blanchet wrote a set of 64 Preludes, Op. 41 in four books. The preludes are the first three books, and then the fourth book contains 32 pages of exercises for the left hand alone. Those exercises were written as a supplement to the preludes because all of them only emphasized the right hand. What is so fascinating and useful is that these exercises feature polyphony in the same hand, often with conflicting voices. In time you can acquire total independence of the fingers, which is invaluable for Godowsky as well as Bach. It is a great shame that Blanchet's exercises are not available right now, and someday I would like to engineer a reprint of them- I think they would be valuable for students.

These exercises were written only for the left hand, which brings up the subject of symmetrical inversion. This concept, in theory, should allow for equal development of both hands. It is based on the principle that the keyboard is a mirror from two different centers, either D or A-Flat. If you start on one of these enters and playa chromatic scale in contrary motion, you find that the pattern of black and white keys is the same. This means that any passage written for one hand can also be practiced by the other. The notes won't be the same of course, but the movements and the fingering will always be the same. So the left hand can benefit from anything written for the right. The Chopin Etudes heavily favor the right hand, but they can be practiced this way so that the left hand will benefit equally. Many teachers aren't aware of this, but it's a very useful tool, probably one of the most useful in the acquisition of a good piano technique. Luckily, my father (an amateur pianist) was aware of this concept and imparted it to me. He discovered this concept in a small volume of exercises that Rudolf Ganz published in America. Ganz mentions Blanchet's exercises and reproduces five pages of examples. I have since collected all of Blanchet's published works. I don't think his concert music will have lasting value, but he's fascinating to study nonetheless.

You have stated that for a musician, technique is an extension of one's musical brain. Do you still find, however, that the connection between the brain and the fingers requires extra attention? I am referring to how you talked about not needing to practice too much, and how you rarely need to drill technical passages. Of course, you have a much more fluent connection between your brain and fingers than the rest of us! But I think that even you must have to drill sometimes, so what do you drill?

You'd be surprised. I cannot remember the last time I actually went through the 24 scales. I can't remember. It would be safe to say that I don't really drill anymore. But my practice time is really concerned with solving musical problems as well as mechanical ones, in the repertoire I'm playing.

So you drill spots.

Yes, yes. I will repeat of course, also for memorization, and I will do everything in my power to find a way to make it sound the best, or the closest to what I want, and that's what it's all about. That's really what it is. 

At Millennium Park in Chicago.

So basically you don't drill anything! 

Well, I wouldn't recommend necessarily doing it my way. If you need to, you do it. But I personally have not really felt the need. I think that early on I developed a very good mind for music and elasticity of thinking. Also elasticity in dealing with basic problems such as finger independence, polyrhythms, rhythm, and texture control, so these problems really don't have to be addressed anymore.

They don't exist.

I suppose so. I've done everything I can to smooth out rough corners-that's what preparing a performance is all about. Some people complain that it doesn't look difficult when I play. To me, that makes no sense. In a way it is a compliment, because it means that I have overcome all of the hurdles that stand in the way of communicating the main message.

I think because your arms and your hands are so supple and so elastic everything looks extremely effortless, but that doesn't mean that it is not difficult.

I'm even amazed when I watch myself on video. I'm very puzzled, because I look at myself and remember how I felt when I played that particular passage, and it certainly was not tension-free. I can maybe understand why people say what they say, but the problem there is that they're looking more than listening. I don't want to alienate an audience here, but I think audiences are more and more used to pianists performing histrionics at the keyboard, and that's not music-making, I'm sorry. It has nothing to do with it.

In 90 percent of artists we can see some struggle, but in your case we don't see it. That's unusual. This is probably the reason for this reaction.

Horowitz was very still. And a cellist I've worked with, Anne Gastinel in France-I saw her play the Rachmaninoff Sonata once; she has incredible poise and her body movements are almost non-existent, but what comes out is really extraordinarily genuine. It's vibrant and it's communicative. Some people complain that there are certain pianists who you can't look at, because they're too disturbing to watch-well, then close your eyes! I mean, we went through so much trouble preparing these things for them, purely on an auditory level, that if for some reason we're not watchable or boring to watch, which I believe I am-except ifyou're really analyzing what it is I do, in which case it isn't-then don't watch.

Don't forget to visit to read additional web-only excerpts from this enlightening interview!

Marc-Andre Hamelin continues to maintain a prolific recording and performing schedule. He recently performed his debuts with the Seattle and St. Louis Symphonies, and he performed with the New York Philharmonic in July. This summer he will make his debut at the Salzburg Festival in addition to performances at the Santa Fe and Ravinia Festivals; an Australian tour is scheduled for September. Upcoming releases include a two-CD set of Haydn Sonatas (August 2009), the Schumann Piano Quintet with the Takacs Quartet, and planned recordings of the Reger Piano Concerto and Hamelin 's own Twelve Etudes in Minor Keys.

CBC Radio-Canada has just placed four of Hamelin's concerts online as part of the Montreal Pro Musica Association's 60th anniversary celebration. These concerts will remain online through March of 2010, and they can be accessed at cert. Curious readers wishing to hear more of Hamelin's thoughts can access a lengthy interview with pianist Ethan Iverson of the jazz trio The Bad Plus by visiting marcandr%C3%A9-hamelin.html. 

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