After his sparkling C P E Bach disc, released on the Hyperion label in January 2022, Marc-André Hamelin, that fearless master of the piano who seems to be able to playing anything (and I mean anything!) moves seamlessly from the precision and clarity of early classical keyboard music to an album of piano rags, written over the last 50 or so years, by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938).

In the generous liners notes, the composer himself introduces the repertoire, explaining how his discovery of the music of Scott Joplin, which had fallen into obscurity after the composer’s death,  led him to explore the genre himself in the late 1960s, at a time when Joplin’s opera Treemonisha resurfaced and his music, and ragtime in general, was being revived, and a new generation of American composers were writing new “tradition-style” rags. This music has an enduring appeal to audiences, and for Bolcom and others, reviving ragtime was a way of “picking up a dropped thread of our emerging American tradition”; paying homage to and continuing the genre.

The elements of traditional, Joplin ragtime are evident in Bolcom’s rags – the distinctive musical DNA of syncopation and swing, which Hamelin perfectly captures – but Bolcom allows himself to stray into more unusual territories, for example in Rag-Tango which alternates between the gritty sensuality of Argentine tango, piquant “crunchy” harmonies, and traditional rag elements.

In fact, such is Bolcom’s skill with the genre, and Hamelin’s pitch perfect execution, that it’s easy to forget one is listening to ragtime at all. The third of the ‘Ghost’ rags, Dream Shadows, has a lazy, hazy late-night jazz club vibe, to which Hamelin brings his remarkably sensitive sense of timing and atmospheric rubato. Meanwhile, other rags are more traditional in their toe-tapping rhythms and hip-swinging syncopation. Some are exuberant, almost Lisztian in their scope – and here that sparkling clarity and nonchalant technical assuredness that is so characteristic of Hamelin’s playing in more traditional or mainstream repertoire is once again on fine display – while others are easy-going, evoking humid evenings in the American South (with brisket cooking low ‘n’ slow on the coals, perhaps?). The rag fantasia Serpent’s Kiss opens with rumbling, pulsing notes redolent of Schubert’s Erlkönig before slipping into something more akin to silent film music, interspersed with contrasting interludes suggesting shifting narratives and characters (there’s even a Fred Astaire style tap-dancing routine!).  Some of the rags are very personal (Lost Lady and Graceful Ghost, for example), others celebrate friendships, musical collaborators, and other composers, such as Louis Chauvin and Ernesto Nazareth (Joplin’s great Brazilian contemporary); some are wistful, others are punchy, in-yer-face, rags, but all are distinctive, appealing in their references back to Joplin’s model, but with multiple moods and harmonies, and brilliantly presented by Hamelin, who seems to really relish this repertoire (and if you didn’t know it, listening to him you’d never guess he’s a classical pianist – there’s a natural jazz insouciance to Hamelin’s playing throughout the disc). There’s wit and humour aplenty, tempered, when needed, by tenderness and poignancy, whimsy, much charm and ingenious invention.

If you don’t know the music of William Bolcom, this disc should absolutely be your starting point.  It’s a wonderful, revelatory, and, above all, really enjoyable listen from start to finish.

William Bolcom: The Complete Rags is available on the Hyperion label. With detailed liner notes by the composer.

This review first appeared on

CDA68213Piano Sonata in B flat major D960

Four Impromptus D935 Op 142

Marc-André Hamelin, piano

(Hyperion CDA68213)

Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, more used to scaling the most vertiginous peaks of the piano literature or revealing the more esoteric nuggets and rarities of repertoire, has released a recording of Schubert’s final piano sonata and the second set of Impromptus.

The evergreen Sonata in B flat, D960, is perennially popular with pianists and audiences alike, and regularly graces concert programmes and recordings. Not only is it a beautiful and absorbing piece of music, it also holds a curious fascination for pianists and listeners. Completed just a few months before the composer’s death in November 1828, this sonata (and to a lesser extent its companions D958 and D959) is regarded by many as a valediction or a premature message from beyond the grave – the composer’s final farewell at the end of a life cut tragically short by syphilis. As a consequence, this sonata has acquired a certain “otherworldiness” which can influence the way pianists approach it. It is, in my opinion, unhelpful to apply too sentimental an interpretation to this striking work, or to approach Schubert’s life and work in Vienna in the first part of the nineteenth century with 21st-century sensibilities:  it is worth noting that the average life expectancy for a man in Vienna in the 1820s was 38 years, and at the time when Schubert lived in that great city it was dangerous, dirty, disease-ridden, and rife with crime. All lives were lived on the edge of sorrow, not just Franz Schubert’s. And so while there is pathos, sombre melancholy and a sense of acceptance (but never resignation) in this Sonata, there is also serenity, exuberance and a tangible joie de vivre, particularly in the third and fourth movements. Indeed, by the close of the work, one has the sense of a composer who lived a full life and still had plenty more to say.

When so many performances and recordings of this great sonata exist, including some notable “benchmark” recordings which stand the test of time (and we each have our personal favourites), why would a pianist of Marc-André Hamelin’s standing and facility, with an already impressive discography, turn to Schubert? Well, in a way, late Schubert – like late Beethoven – sits up there alongside Shakespeare, and like Shakespeare’s writing, there’s always more to find in this music, and each performance (as a player or listener) is a different experience. The D960 has the richness of a journey willingly undertaken and plots a course through the whole gamut of the composer’s personality, his emotions and ideals. He’s introspective, yet his message has a universal truth – and tenderness too.

For a pianist who seems able to handle anything the repertoire can throw at him, from the craggy edifice of Charles Ives’ ‘Concord’ Sonata, Stockhausen’s enigmatic Klavierstück IX, to Villa-Lobos’ savage Rudepoema, or the mannered witty classicism of Haydn, late Schubert seems an unusual choice. Yet I know from a conversation with Marc-André that this is a hugely significant undertaking for him personally, and I feel this recording perhaps says more about the pianist than the work itself.

This is not virtuosic music, in the traditional sense of the word. It has no grand gestures nor intricately glittering passages; it is introspective and often deeply intimate. But there are certainly connections between Schubert’s last sonata and Ives’ Concord – both are large-scale works, expansive and wide-ranging, and require the pianist to create a clear narrative for the entire work, rather than “sleepwalking” through it. Schubert combines beauty and a structure so vast that it seems it may never end, and the work requires special reserves of concentration and artistic vision to be convincing. Pairing this large sonata with the four Impromptus D935 gives the listener a chance to appreciate Schubert’s intense artistic maturity and skill in handling structure in smaller works too.

Fortunately, Hamelin eschews the valedictory or overly sentimental approach for the D960 and opts for a leisurely Andante moderato in the opening movement, highlighting the graceful hymn-like melody of first subject, and despite a couple of rhythmic anomalies, the music moves forward with a serene sense of purpose, occasionally tinged with hesitancy. Agogic accents (a slight hesitation before arriving at a note) are used to emphasise the long notes which begin the phrases in the first subject. This can feel a little self-conscious at times, although I appreciate why Hamelin does it – it lends a dramatic poignancy to the melody. The infamous bass trill, first heard in bar 8, is a distant rumble, nothing more ominous, though later iterations feel more unsettling, quickly dispelled by the poetic melody, which is tastefully balanced against the accompaniment. The bridge to the development section (the exposition repeat is, thankfully, intact!) – those two extraordinary chords at bar 117 – is suitably ethereal, though the pause before embarking on the development is just on the uncomfortable side of dramatic for me. Overall, Hamelin’s take on this movement is not “Schubert as Beethoven on a quiet day”, but rather Schubert the genial spinner of songs: Hamelin gives this movement the intimacy of a lieder while also appreciating its regal expansiveness. Schubert’s good nature is never far away in the transitions between major and minor passages, to which Hamelin responds with a nuanced warming up or cooling of the sound, and the overall mood is positive – imperturbability and joyfulness are only occasionally disturbed by darkness.

The temperature drops somewhat in the slow movement (famously given a desolate, almost funereal air by Sviatoslav Richter’s choice of tempo), though the atmosphere is restrained and meditative rather than cold and melancholy. The bass line, whose rhythmic ostinato figure maintains the underlying sense of forward motion in the outer sections, is well delineated and never obscured by too much pedal. And it is that rising bass figure, over which the melody is simply yet elegantly shaped, which also saves the music from becoming too sombre. The middle section, in warm A major, is rather passive. I would have liked a greater sense of exaltation: it feels a little held back and occasionally ponderous. The coda however is sensitively managed, ending on a rising arpeggio in radiant C-sharp major.

If the opening movement unfolds like a great river plotting its final course, the third movement is as bright and playful as a mountain stream. Hamelin captures its bubbling, quixotic character, responding neatly to the harmonic sidesteps and shifting registers. A change of mood is signalled in the minor key Trio, whose fzp bass accents and syncopations in the right hand suggest an exotic and rather menacing dance or ländler, but the former ebullience is quickly restored in the return to the Scherzo, preparing the way for the finale.

It is in the finale that Hamelin has the greatest opportunities for virtuosity, yet there is restraint and sensitivity here, just as in the opening movement: supple responses to the shifting moods and harmonies, the second subject melody lyrically shaped, the dotted rhythms dance gracefully, and some colourful voicings give this movement playfulness and vigour. The occasional places where the tempo presses forward somewhat unexpectedly lend a slightly breathless sense of urgency, while the coda is bright, robust and positive.

Coming after the expansive D960 (other programmes may place these works the other way round), the Impromptus D935 also have the sense of a sonata in four contrasting movements. The fourth of the set has a toe-tapping vigour and wit, a darkly lit Hungarian dance (remember these pieces were written the year before the final sonatas in the aftermath of Winterreise), the third is graceful and mercurial, occasionally tongue-in-cheek, and the second tender and intimate.

The F minor Impromptu, the first of the set, has an orchestral grandeur offset by the tender duetting passages. Purists will balk at the addition of a “new” coda, written by Hamelin himself, who regards the score “a frozen moment in time“. His justification for adding a coda in this instance is that the work “basically finishes without a coda“, and while he believes that one should not stray too far from what the score says, it is sometimes “permissible to go a little bit away from it“. Certainly, it’s an interesting addition, perhaps more akin to Schumann than Schubert in its romantic textures, and it picks up the duetting fragments from the main body of the work. For me it just feels too unexpected.

But perhaps the most unexpected aspect is Hamelin’s decision to record late Schubert, given his predilection for more virtuosic/unusual repertoire. It’s a bold move, because the Sonata D960 holds such an important place in the repertoire and the hearts and minds of pianists, listeners and commentators. Do we need another recording of the D960? Does it matter that many others have also recorded it and others are waiting to record it in the future? I don’t think so, because the music is there to be played and this recording will enter the great catalogue of Schubert recordings to give pleasure to listeners. It may not be to everyone’s taste –  no recording ever could be – but there’s an eloquence and sensitivity in Hamelin’s approach to this music which is satisfying and committed.

Recording details: May 2017
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: 27 April 2018
Total duration: 81 minutes 48 seconds

Informative and readable liner notes by Richard Wigmore


(image credit © Sim Canetty-Clarke)

Concerts by Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin are always challenging and exciting: a fearless approach to repertoire and unusual programme juxtapositions, combined with insightful musicianship, all underpinned by formidable technique create some of the most compelling musical experiences, and Hamelin’s latest Wigmore Hall offering was no exception.

Read my full review here

Canadian pianist (and sometime composer) Marc-André Hamelin can play anything, you know…….

Or so it appeared last night as he wowed the Wigmore audience with a programme of radical and adventurous repertoire. Read my review for Bachtrack here

In our celebrity-obsessed, ‘image is everything’ times, it seems that the fledgling concert pianist’s path to the modern concert arena – the ‘Three C’s’ of Conservatoire, Competition and Concerto – has turned professional piano playing into a kind of Olympian activity whose creed is “faster, higher, louder”, and has reduced the vast and wonderful repertoire to a relatively small stable of over-played warhorses, most notably, perhaps, the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Third Concerto. Today’s young piano superstars are using technique as the be all and end all, rather than as a means to serve the music. Thus, while we might be impressed by flashy technical prowess and grand gestures, we are often being offered only superficial display.

Just as the four-minute mile has been shaved down by 17 seconds over the 50 years since Bannister’s record-breaking run, certain pieces in the standard piano repertoire seem to be getting faster – and/or louder. I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter followers and Facebook friends to see what other people thought about this. As one person said, “….people are generally and more easily drawn to the more obvious things in life (just take a look at anything in the media today). Faster and louder is definitely more obvious than subtle and artistic. It also requires less work….”

Thus, certain pieces are wheeled out over and over again by young, ‘generic’ pianists, not because they are necessarily the hardest in the repertoire, but because they are the most impressive, both visually and aurally. And here I must admit that I was absolutely gob-smacked by the speed at which Marc-Andre Hamelin’s hands moved around the keyboard at his late-night Liszt Prom, even though I didn’t like the actual piece (Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H) that much. But in his Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude, Hamelin proved that he is not just a brilliant technician: his account was ethereal, luminescent, profound and emotional, and it spoke of a long association with the music, something which younger players may not appreciate with their desire to rush from showpiece to showpiece.

My informal poll revealed a general consensus about certain works, acknowledged amongst pianists to be some of the most challenging in the repertoire, in terms of technical difficulty and/or length. These include, in no particular order (links open in Spotify):

Beethoven – Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’. The daring opening leap should, of course, be played with one hand!

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit

Stravinsky – Trois Mouvements de Petrushka

Chopin – Etudes (especially Op 10 Nos 1 & 2, Op 25 Nos 6 & 11)

Liszt – Transcendental Etudes (especially Feux Follets, Wilde Jagd)

Liszt – B minor Sonata

Brahms – Paganini Variations

Rachmaninov – 3rd Concerto

Prokofiev – 2nd Concerto

Bartok – 2nd Concerto

Alkan – Concert for Solo Piano

Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus

Godowsky – transcriptions of Chopin Etudes

Sorabji – Opus clavicembalisticum (a piece which lasts around 4 hours)

Of course, while being hugely technically and physically demanding, many of these works, when played well, sound effortless (which, of course, is what we as pianists are all striving for!). And yet even the simplest piece, such as Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica, which I heard played as an encore at an eccentric little arts venue in Highgate some years ago, can sound sophisticated and refined – ‘Olympian’ even – in the right hands!

As a postscript, my own personal ‘Olympian’ works include:

Chopin – Etude Opus 10, No. 3. As my teacher said, the difficulty lies less in the technical demands, and more in the fact that this Etude is so well known, so one wants to do it justice.

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge, no. IV of the ‘Vingt Regards’. For someone who had not really attempted any true atonal music before, the difficulty in this piece lay, initially, in “tuning” my ear into the discordant harmonies. Also, at first sight it looks utterly horrendous on the page!

Debussy – Prelude & Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’. The Prelude requires playful, fleet and pristine fingers, while the big, hand-filling chords of the Sarabande presented their own problem for the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Exercises and solid technique have enabled me to play this piece comfortably and without pain.

More on ‘Pianistic Everests’ from Tom Service