Schumann Hamelin/Hyperion C

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 10

On disc and in concert, Marc-André Hamelin’s interpretations of so-called “standard” piano repertoire have a hit-and-miss quality that contrasts with the unflappable authority and frightening technical proficiency he brings to the literature’s nether regions: Alkan, Godowsky, Busoni, Catoire, etc. And so it is with Hamelin’s Schumann. The C major Fantasie’s first movement, for the most part, is magnificently played. Hamelin unfolds the music in sweeping, symphonic arcs as Pollini did in his recording from the early 1970s, but with a richer, more rounded tone. His technical proficiency here and in the knotty second movement matches Kissin’s effortless security, although the Russian pianist’s phrasing is more vocally informed and polyphonically aware.

Compare for instance the second movement coda’s notoriously difficult skips and you’ll hear more inflection in Kissin’s bass lines. At the same time, Hamelin takes a refreshingly lyrical approach to the movement’s relentless march-like rhythms, yet without losing overall momentum. The finale, however, disappoints. Hamelin, to be sure, makes pretty sounds, yet makes nothing of the music’s harmonic tensions and subtle linear interplay. By projecting these qualities with affirmation and specificity, other pianists give Schumann’s introspective musings a more palpable context, like Kempff, Arrau, Perahia, Andsnes, and Fiorentino, among my favorites.

The problematic Second Sonata–a thick, compressed, and gnarly opus if ever there was one–rarely has sounded clearer on disc: Hamelin cuts through Schumann’s dense textures with the seasoned aplomb of a Roto-Rooter man servicing a heavily backed-up drain. I still lean toward Martha Argerich’s gaunter, panther-like sonority and sheer nervous energy in the outer movements, but Hamelin truly captures the spirit behind Schumann’s contradictory “as fast as possible/still faster” indication for the finale.

Unlike many pianists today who wouldn’t be caught dead playing Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques without the five Posthumous Etudes and all repeats intact, Hamelin presents the “traditional” 1852 revision. Much of his playing is too fast for the music to take shape on the listener’s end. As a result, the repeated chords and churning bass octaves in Variation VI are not so well defined and shaped as they ought to be, and the accuracy of Variation IV’s dotted rhythms is compromised. The mood of Hamelin’s supple chord playing in the quicksilver Etude IX is shattered by his glib, pounded-out Variation VIII. Conversely, Hamelin’s static, freeze-framed Variation VII underplays the music’s Handelian pomp. However, I do like Hamelin’s bracing, flexible, and ingenuously voiced Finale, easily the most fanciful and least ponderous reading of this movement on disc. Here the pianist’s distensions of phrase convincingly intensify the dramatic build-up. A pity the rest of the performance is so uneven. Richter’s 1971 studio recording (Olympia), along with Perahia’s and Pollini’s, remain supreme among modern recommendations, while Cortot, Francois, and Sofronitsky rule the historic Etudes Symphoniques roost. Hyperion’s annotations and sonics are, as usual, excellent.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Fantasie Fiorentino (APR), Sonata, Argerich (Philips), Etudes Symphoniques, Richter (Olympia)

ROBERT SCHUMANN - Fantasie in C major Op. 17 Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 Etudes Symphoniques Op. 13

  • Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

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