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Marc-Andre Hamelin. 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys: Piano Solo. New York: C. F. Peters, 2010. [Foreword in Eng., Ger., p. iii-xii; score, p. 1-127. ISMN 979-0-3007-5693-6; pub. no. 68235. $36.75.]

Marc-Andre Hamelin. Con intimissimo sentimento; A Collection of 7 Pieces for Solo Piano. [Edited by Satoru Takaku.] New York: Edition Peters, 2011. [Composer's note, p. 2; ed.'s note, p. 3; score, p. 4-23; biogs. of composer and editor, p. [24]. ISMN 979-0-3007-5768-1; pub. no. 68340. $13.50.]

Marc-Andre Hamelin is one of the most original and acclaimed pianists of the current age. His virtuosity, musical sensitivity, and prolific recording career have garnered him awards of the highest order, including a Juno Award, and officer of the Order of Canada. Additionally, his compositional abilities have firmly entrenched him in the pianistic world as the torch bearer to the long line of pianist-composers descending from J. S. Bach. He has recorded the works of the great nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century virtuoso composers Godowsky, Rachmaninoff, Alkan, Busoni, Medtner, Feinberg, Scriabin, and Sorabji, collectively referred to as "The Eight" by Robert Rimm (Robert Rimm, The Composer--Pianists: Hamelin and The Eight [Portland, OR: Amadeus, 2002]), and he has delighted audiences over the past several decades with inclusions of his own compositions within his concert programs, highlighting and sharing the excitement of this musical tradition that has been marginal or nonexistent since World War II.

The recently published Edition Peters scores of Hamelin's compositions are an absolutely tremendous addition to the piano repertoire. Hamelin notes in the introduction to the etudes that many of these pieces have been circulating for years among pianists and other interested individuals. Although Hamelin's technical abilities are beyond the reach of most pianists who would attempt this literature, clearly there is interest in exploring it. Edition Peters should be commended for their initiative in making this music available to the community at large, thereby recognizing its importance and relevance to today's musicians. In addition to serving as a work for pianists, it is a collection of pieces that offers significant pedagogical merit to composers and scholars with interests in this compositional tradition.

Hamelin's 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys is a collection of pieces written between 1986 and 2009. As a whole, the works pay homage to the vibrant tradition of etudes written and performed by Chopin, Liszt, Paganini, Debussy, and Scriabin. As one would expect from the title, each of these works addresses a specific pianistic or technical challenge; however, Hamelin clearly states, "although they are of considerable difficulty and will be primarily regarded by performers as pianistic challenges ... it should go without saying that their emotional essence should not be underplayed or ignored. ... I don't think I would be wrong in insisting that these pieces not be approached with the aim to conquering their pianistic problems alone; reducing them to pure exercises would be utterly meaningless and definitely against my wishes" (p. iii). Indeed, they are expressive character pieces as can clearly be heard on Hamelin's recording of them from 2010 (Hyperion CDA 67789). In this collection, he clearly pays homage to great musicians of the past, not just in style and spirit, but also by incorporating specific melodies or pieces, and subtitling many pieces with the names of their originators, such as "After Tchaikovsky" or "After Paganini--Liszt."

As Hamelin also mentions in his introduction, "they are at least as much compositional studies as anything else. Their degree of harmonic, textural and contrapuntal subtlety should not be overlooked or demoted in favor of pure prowess display" (p. iii). This statement reflects an important role these pieces can have not just for pianists, but for composers as well. The contrapuntal combinations of the Chopin "arrangements" are outstanding as compositional models. Likewise, his combination of two Alkan etudes (No. 4: "Etude a mouvement perpetuellement semblable (d'apres Alkan)," and his final Prelude and Fugue serve as compositional models that are innovative and creative, yet utilize traditional formal structures.

The first piece in the collection is his extraordinary compositional feat; the "Triple Etude (After Chopin)." This piece has been well known to Hamelin's fans for several years, and at least the conception of it has been firmly entrenched in the pianophile world of virtuosic accomplishment. Godowsky published a collection of fifty-three studies based on Chopin's etudes between 1894 and 1914, and as part of this work, there was some evidence that he had completed at least a sketch of a piece that combined three of Chopin's etudes into one, but no manuscript has surfaced. It is believed that if a score did exist, it was likely destroyed during World War II, along with many of Godowsky's other works. Hamelin has done a brilliant job of combining the three etudes (op. 10, no. 2; op. 25, no. 4; and op. 25, no. 11) into one contrapuntally complex whole that challenges the pianist immensely. The upper line consists of the material from op. 10, no. 2--a perpetual rapid chromatic run supported by a leaping bass figure. Opus 25, no. 11, is featured in the middle voice as a legato line projected lyrically in the foreground. The op. 25, no. 4, etude is less prominent in the opening, but its syncopated character comes through clearly starting in measure 20. As the piece unfolds, additional challenges are presented. Chromatic runs appear in the bass line as well, and the rhythmic difficulties increase first with 3-against-4 cross rhythms that then lead to 6-against-4 figurations. As noted by Hamelin in his accompanying text, the main challenge with this combination of pieces is that after the first eight measures, the counterpoint becomes more complicated, and due to the considerably contrasting nature of the individual pieces, it is necessary for one of them to dominate the texture while the others conform to it. He advises that "the various elements from each study should always be as clearly discernible as possible, even when relegated to the background" (p. iii). This is an absolute challenge both from a technical and expressive perspective.

In the tenth etude in the series, Hamelin further explores pianistic styles based on Chopin's music. This etude was previously identified on Hyperion Records's Web site with the subtitle " 'pour les idees noires'; after Chopin's Op 10 No 5" (, accessed 15 May 2013), but here, it is simply entitled "Etude No. 10: after Chopin." The source material is not immediately apparent at the outset, but it does become discernible as the piece develops. Hamelin describes the overall effect as "the original Chopin etude heard through about 20 feet of water. ... everything here is distorted, be it melody, mode, harmony, timbre, texture, or even the pianist's physical feeling when playing the original" (p. vi). As would be expected with such a piece, the technical aspects are extremely difficult, but a new side of the character and intensity of the original is presented in an imaginative and sensitive way.

A collection of virtuosic piano etudes would not be complete without some homage to Liszt, and Hamelin provides a fitting tribute to the Grande etudes de Paganini via a whimsical and diabolical presentation of the "La campanella" theme from the third etude of that collection (also the third etude of Hamelin's set). The popular opening and memorable theme are presented in a sparse texture at the beginning, making it instantly clear to whom the thematic material pays homage. There are many flourishes that add flair and virtuosic color, and in addition, Hamelin treats us to several contrasting variations or episodes that are juxtaposed abruptly, offering both comedic and fanciful effects, culminating in a major climactic finale complete with fff, con bravura, and ffff directives.

Although the challenging technical aspects of this collection will remain in the foreground for most people playing or listening to the works, an integral and significant aspect of Hamelin's work is his humor. The etudes Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 9 are excellent examples. It is almost impossible to engage with Nos. 4 or 5 without getting caught up in the excitement of the sheer frenzy and whirlwind speeds. The syncopated rhythms in No. 5 offer a mischievous character and sense of being on the edge. In this etude, a toccata, the theme that arrives at measure 94 kicks off a stunning and sparkling humoreske-style that maintains a relentless drive and excitement to the end. Hamelin himself says "it would be strange to hear either nos. 6 or 9 played without any sense of humor!" (p. iii). Of the sixth etude, a tribute to Domenico Scarlatti, he explicitly notes that he has lampooned (with affection) Scarlatti's "recurring mannerisms," and "its occasionally rather acrobatic nature adds a humorous visual dimension to any live performance" (p. v). Anyone familiar with his performance of Rodion Shchedrin's Humoreske (widely available on Internet video sources) will appreciate the ways in which the physicality of a piece's construction can be exploited for comedic effect. In this performance, he augmented the humorous aspects of the composition with exaggerated physical gestures, sly glances at the audience, and index-fingered execution of the melody. Although this approach is not explicitly directed in the Scarlatti etude, there is definitely room for exploiting such imaginative visual elements. The ninth etude is also humorous, consisting of a theme by Rossini that is subjected to many changes. In Hamelin's words, "Poor Rossini is here subjected to sudden major-minor shifts, melodic inversions, a tune that starts a third too high, blue-note chords, and what amounts to something of a full-blown epileptic seizure towards the end" (p. vi). In his compositional practice, as well as in his notes about the works, it is clear that there is a sense of profound joy and humor incorporated into the works that do not diminish their sincerity as serious pieces, but instead add an element of humanity and intrigue that can easily be lost in this genre.

In addition to the insanely fast, sparkling runs, and leaps that are predominant in many of the etudes, Hamelin explores the technical challenges associated with the finer expressive capacity of the instrument, including exploiting the lyrical aspects in the etudes Nos. 7, 11, and 2. The seventh etude is a gorgeous arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby, op. 16, no. 1, written for left hand alone. The difficulty of creating a legato melody over such a rich accompaniment with only one hand is paramount, requiring careful handling of the pedal and a sensitive approach that creates a seamless texture, avoiding any evidence of the limitations of playing with only one hand. Etude No. 11 is a Minuet and Trio that was originally intended to be included within a larger sonata. It incorporates an impressionist sensibility with jazz harmonies, always connected by a lyrical melody that appears in various registers. The second etude also has an impressionist flavor. Titled Coma Berenices after Queen Berenice II of Egypt., Hamelin suggests that this etude could evoke the sense of a beautiful head of flowing hair. Although this is in no way connected to Debussy's prelude La file aux cheveux de lin, the fluidity and harmonious texture does bring to mind the dreamy qualities associated with Debussy and Ravel. The piece is challenging on many levels. Not only must the pianist overcome the technical issues of playing various double-note intervals throughout while projecting a melody clearly, but the chromatic movement and climactic moments must be presented in a way that avoids a sense of agitation. As Hamelin directs, "Pianists should take care in not making the piece sound hurried or agitated; it should exude serenity despite its difficulty" (p. iv).

One piece within the collection that is especially noteworthy is his interpretation of the "Erlkonig," after Goethe. Although most of us are familiar with the Schubert lied of the same name, many composers have reinterpreted Goethe's poem, including Reichardt, Zelter, Spohr, Tomasek, and Hamelin's inspiration, Lorin Hollander. Hamelin's is an exquisite and imaginative interpretation of the much loved romantic poem that captures beautifully the lyricism of the narrator and the subtleties of expression dictated by the text. The appearance of the Erlkonig theme is playful, impish and compelling, but the subversive and traumatic elements of the reality at hand remain constant. The turmoil and terror of the child's exclamation is expressed without reserve; the climax is marked fff with additional direction of con somma forza, agitatissimo and an accelerando, resulting in a powerful finale that leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the situation.

The finale of the 12 Etudes is a full blown Prelude and Fugue in A-flat minor. This seventeen-page piece is written in the great tradition of preludes and fugues of Bach, but reflects the more modernist style of Scriabin. The prelude is harmonically dense, alluding at times to atonality, although never completely rescinding a tonal center. The improvisatory nature of the prelude tradition is captured throughout as the piece moves from meditative chords to arpeggiated runs, explorations of rhythmic patterns and the like. A cadenza figure leads directly to the playful fugue subject, marked Allegrissimo e feroce (un poco meccanico), with an additional marking of implacable. Hamelin describes the fugue subject as "rather silly" and comments on its similarity to the tarantella theme in Busoni's Piano Concerto. He also notes that it "was never meant to become such a monstrous agglomeration of cruel virtuosic devices" (p. vii), which gives a clear impression of mechanically how the fugue unfolds, eventually culminating in a climactic ffff and accented finale. Although there is no direction anywhere in the work that these twelve pieces need to be played together as one unit, there is little doubt that if they were, they must end with this one!

Overshadowed by the magnitude of the etudes, yet an important work in its own right, is the separately released collection of smaller pieces Con intimissimo sentimento, released by Peters in 2011. Based on a previous edition published in Japan (Tokyo: Ongaku No Tomo Sha Edition, 2002), this set was produced with the intention of making Hamelin's music accessible to a broader performing community. He notes in the introduction that most of his other music is considerably more demanding, making it difficult for his music to be performed widely. He also confesses an attraction to quiet and intimate music, offering these as an expressive outlet that may not be available in other, more vibrant, virtuosic compositions.

The collection opens with three pieces entitled "landler," which are all of varying character. The first is somewhat fanciful and improvisatory, appropriately marked malinconico, although the melancholic character is not immediately obvious, but rather unfolds as the piece takes shape. It ends with a pppp tone cluster held over a low [??] (Flat-II in the opening tonality of A minor), which leaves it harmonically ambiguous and unresolved. Landler no. 2 is chordal with a tranquil sensibility that offers a pianistic challenge in creating an expressive melodic line that carries through the long phrases. The third one, exploring the sonority of parallel fourths and Fifths with occasional explorations in the louder dynamic range, differs from the previous two, which remained focused on the quietest range throughout.

The pieces that follow are likewise short pieces that explore various techniques required for intimate expression and exploration of sonority and harmony. As Hamelin notes, the pieces are all of a "similarly subdued character" (p. [21), but they are all striking in their expressive capacity. As a whole, this collection is at a moderate level of difficulty that could be navigated by an intermediate pianist, which allows the work to serve as a rich addition to the pedagogical literature, particularly useful for students to develop tone control and expressive capacity in the softer dynamic range.

Overall, these are two commendable collections of pieces that demonstrate how relevant the Western art-music tradition still can be to contemporary audiences. Hamelin has provided a truly exquisite and superb example of how skill, artistry, and imagination can be combined to create great modern music that serves to entertain, educate, and inspire on many levels.


Lancaster University

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Author:Cochran, Keith
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Date:Sep 1, 2013

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