Chamayou makes impressive Cleveland debut with Scriabin rarity

Cleveland Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 28, 2017

Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20
Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, Rhenish

After opening the Summers@Severance season with a bread-and-butter all-Beethoven program, the Cleveland Orchestra turned to less familiar repertoire for the second installment.  Two firsts for the orchestra were to be had in the opening selection of Scriabin’s youthful piano concerto: it was a vehicle for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of the French pianist Bertrand Chamayou, as well as the inaugural performance of the work in the ensemble’s century-long history.  At the podium was Susanna Mälkki, a dynamic podium presence who never fails to strike me in her attention to color and nuance (and parenthetically, this was right on the heels of her memorable performance I caught in Chicago last month).

Bertrand Chamayou (c) Marco Borggreve - Warner Classics 2
Bertrand Chamayou, photo credit Marco Borggreve

The Scriabin piano concerto is firmly in the grand Romantic tradition, in no way anticipatory of the revolutionary atonality the composer’s works would soon embrace.  That being said, it’s a relatively compact work, the three movements cumulatively clocking in at under a half hour, and tends towards restraint over bombast.  Opening with solo passages for the horn and clarinet, the wistful piano entrance piano entrance was unmistakably Chopinesque, displaying the influence of Scriabin’s muse at the time, and later countered by a more jestful theme.  Arching melodies swelled in the orchestra, Mälkki skillfully balancing the dense orchestration with the solo piano, and movement built to a grandiose conclusion.

The central movement was cast in variations, an unusual form for Scriabin.  Serene strings introduced the theme, while the first variation was marked by delicate filigree in the piano in dialogue with the clarinet.  More animated material was to be had in the following variation, evidencing Chamayou’s considerable technical arsenal, while the third variation – and heart of the movement – was a somber funeral march, grounded in the piano’s lowest registers.  A dramatic flourish in the piano opened the finale, Scriabin at his most extrovert.  This gave way to a deeply passionate melody, of the kind one could easily mistake for the composer’s fellow Moscow Conservatory student Rachmaninov, and a display of blistering virtuosity and rich orchestral texture continued unabated through the resounding final chord.

Schumann’s Rhenish symphony made for a fitting counterpart to the concerto.  The opening movement was majestic, the orchestral lines flowing together as one to bring to life the work’s namesake river, and it exuded the heroic potential of its key of E flat major, by no coincidence the same key as Beethoven’s Eroica.  Widely-spaced strings characterized the scherzo, as if gently gliding along the water, and a choir of gentle winds highlighted the slow movement, later contrasted by the lushness of the strings.  The crux of the symphony – and where Schumann breaks from his classical forebears – is in the penultimate movement, a stirring brass chorale, presaging the awe-inspiring solemnity of Bruckner (who was also quite fond of the movement in question’s marking of feierlich).  While not without some unfortunate flubs in the brass, the effect was nonetheless imposing; the finale, however, was of unfettered jubilation, offering spirited playfulness to counter the stoicism of the preceding.

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Hamelin explores the piano sonata in commanding Cleveland recital

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Gartner Auditorium
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
March 21, 2017

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 1
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 2
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, Messe blanche
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35

Encore:
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, No. 1 from Images, Book I

Marc-André Hamelin has built much of his reputation on fearless exploration of the byways of the piano repertoire, and his recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art – presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition – was no exception, juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure.  All the works on the program bore the title “piano sonata”, although none adhered very closely to the standard model of the form, a true testament to the medium’s protean potential.  Hamelin delivered the program with his signature peerless technique, yet this was far from an evening of vapid virtuosity, but one of probing artistic discovery.

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Marc-André Hamelin, photo credit Rachel Papo
The survey of piano sonatas appropriately began with Haydn, in the two movement C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48.  Given Hamelin’s association with the fingerbusting works of the 19th– and 20th-century, Hamelin and Haydn might sound like an unnatural fit, but as he as shown in his extensive recordings of the composer’s sonatas for Hyperion, it’s an inspired coupling to be sure.  From the onset, the performance was marked by deftly nuanced articulation and crisp ornamentation.  There were sporadic moments when matters felt a bit heavy-handed which lesser pedaling perhaps could have ameliorated, but overall this was a study in precision, replete with minor key excursions that foreshadowed Beethoven, and the all too brief finale exuded joie de vivre.

Certified rarities followed, the first two piano sonatas of the Russian composer and pianist Samuil Feinberg.  His cycle of twelve piano sonatas is a remarkable achievement, unjustly neglected, and Hamelin is rumored to be recording them.  These two sonatas, in A major and minor respectively, were of a similar aesthetic, the consecutive opuses hardly demonstrating Feinberg’s eventual compositional developments (both dating from 1915; the final sonata dates from 1962), yet Hamelin presented them with a singular intensity and an unflinching commitment to this little-known music.

The First Sonata was of a brooding Romanticism, while the dense textures would have sounded murky in lesser hands, Hamelin achieved a lucid clarity of voices, and delineated a clear trajectory in spite of the composer’s tendency to meander.  A touchingly lyrical melody characterized the Second Sonata, and a highpoint came in its dramatically cascading climax.

Beethoven’s mighty Appassionata is a recent addition to Hamelin’s concert repertoire; I’ve been eager to hear his take on this durable work, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.  The opening movement built to massive climaxes that carefully avoided bombast.  There was much-needed repose in the slow movement, enhanced by the adroitly voiced chordal melody, while the finale had an unrelenting nervous energy in its breathless race to the tragic end, given at a dangerously brisk tempo.

One of Hamelin’s first recordings of his long and fruitful association with Hyperion was of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas; the arresting Seventh Sonata is a work that has been in his fingers for a very long time.  Explosive and mercurial, the sonata proceeded with inevitability towards the trilling, mystical ending, shrouded in enigma.

Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata concluded the program, and in the passionate first movement Hamelin drew out a fluid melody over an undulating accompaniment.  He eschewed the repeat of the exposition, although in this case I would suggest the repeat is a wise interpretative choice given the movement’s proportions.  There was a menacing determination in the scherzo, while its middle section was indulgent in sumptuous melody, quintessentially Chopinesque.

No empty sentimentality was to be had in the tragic heights of the famous funeral march, and Hamelin had a velvet touch in the contrasting lyrical section.  His utter and absolute command of the keyboard was on full display in the moto perpetuum finale, yet phrases were keenly shaped to make the sonata’s revolutionary ending more than mere volleys of notes.

Hamelin obliged the modest but enthusiastic audience with an encore in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, shimmering and liquescent.