Marc-André Hamelin's Études

Friday, January 14, 2011

Last week, a flood of listener comments came in response to our survey question: What is the most virtuosic piece of piano music ever written? Some of you questioned the very notion of ranking difficulty. Others pointed to Marc-André Hamelin, the urbane French-Canadian pianist with a flair for frenetic finger-twisters, much in the tradition of the 19th-century virtuosos.

It’s not just that Hamelin seems to thrive on whatever treacherous technical challenge is placed in front of him. He is part of a largely bygone tradition of pianist-composers capable of improvising spectacular variations on a given tune and writing pieces that stretch his own personal limits. His recent collection of Études is our Album of the Week.

Hamelin’s 12 Études in all the minor keys were written over a period of almost twenty-five years and are evenly divided between original pieces and arrangements. In the engaging liner notes, he writes that the works are "first and foremost, character pieces," not mere exercises. Stylistically, these cover anything from grandiose Romanticism to 20th-century stride.

In some Études Hamelin relies on superimposition. In the Triple Etude he takes no fewer than three of Chopin’s Études and fuses them in a wash of notes that seems nearly unplayable. In the breathless fourth etude, two themes by Charles-Valentin Alkan are combined, including the finale of that composer's Symphony for Solo Piano (from Alkan's minor key studies).

Arguably the most jaw-dropping among the collection is Hamelin's Etude No. 5, "Toccata grottesca," a rhythmically complex and at times jazzy tour de force, which he blazes through with dazzling panache. The album also contains adaptations of Scarlatti, Schubert, Rossini and Tchaikovsky, the latter being a poetic Etude No. 7. In this texturally rich piece, Hamelin takes Tchaikovsky's Lullaby and manages to make one hand sound like two.

Recently nominated for a Grammy, Hamelin's collection pushes the outer limits of virtuosity. Could it be among the most difficult of all time? Watch the below video and tell us what you think in the comments section.

Marc-André Hamelin: Etudes
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
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Comments [12]

Larry Stoler from Stamford, CT.

This is wonderful. Thank you for making this the album of the week.

Jan. 23 2011 04:50 PM
donald steinman from Manhattan

absolutely superb... when are you performing live in NYC..


Jan. 22 2011 08:26 AM
Silversalty from Dark side of the moon

His back and spine may be on the moon while it's in the seventh house as Jupiter aligns with Mars - but his fingers are in the black keys most of the time. It may be the music for all I know. And I've got one of those pairs of X-ray glasses from the back of old comic books, though I refuse to work for the TSA people.

Jan. 20 2011 06:34 PM
Michael Meltzer

Ahm tawkin ta yiz!

Jan. 19 2011 10:38 PM
Silversalty from Bensonhoist

Are you talkin' to me?

[Motion with arm in oversized loose fitting military style jacket.] :P

Jan. 19 2011 07:40 PM
Michael Meltzer

Never, never, never comment on the placement of any pianist's fingers or the appearance of his or her technique unless you have X-ray eyes and can see the entire alignment of the skeleton from spine to fingertip at all times, and can sense from the tone at the same time the muscular conditions that accompany the alignment in motion.

Jan. 19 2011 05:24 PM
Silversalty from Mile End (in spirit)

This video piece (Etude 8) has qualities that reminded me of Gershwin. I guess that's the jazz suggestions that were mentioned in the lead post. The problem for me is that with the Gershwin quality goes a more modern jazz quality, that of the random noise background drum (the bass drone), which I don't care for. So, a good show of dexterity but from my view, not something I'd want to listen to other than as a "study" - which doesn't relate to me.

Also, the sync is bad, diluting much of the virtuosity of the playing. It has the quality of an actor pretending to play. But that's a web video technology failing - audio/video sync problems.

Hamelin seems to have his hands deep into the keyboard, over the black keys. I don't recall that being the common method. Checking the Gould film on the 1981 Goldbergs I see that Gould has his finger tips over the white only key area most of the time. Gould also sings encouragement to his hands. :P

Jan. 19 2011 01:06 PM
charles danna

the piece i heard him play sounded remarkably like Liszt. later i found out he had composed it. Really!

Jan. 19 2011 10:22 AM
Neil Schnall

Sorry for the awkward syntax.

Jan. 17 2011 03:50 PM
Neil Schnall

What comes to mind watching this video is that one should avoid making a blanket statement about the "correct" posture of hands, arms, body in relation to the keyboard. I was struck by the fact that in Hamelin's case, they keyboard is about at the level of his navel; whereas, in contrast to another paragon of pianistic virtuosity, Vladimir Horowitz, he (VH) sat much lower, with the keyboard roughly at the level of his sternum. That brought his wrists lower, even below the level of the keys, with his forearms either parallel or sloping upwards toward the keys, and he played with often nearly flat fingers. Hamelin's forearms slope downward toward the keys, his wrists are higher, and his fingers are gently curved. Teachers tend to be rather strident in advancing one "position" over another, according to their prejudice; but clearly there are many iters to Rome.

What I notice Hamelin and Horowitz have in common is the complete absence of superfluity of motion. There is a high degree of economy; no motion that does not have a direct bearing on the production of the note.

Fascinating stuff!

Jan. 17 2011 02:44 PM
Mary B. Coan

I have admired Marc-Andre Hamelin's work for a long time. A brilliant pianist/composer,he deserves to be more widely known. His wife is a fascinating unique cabaret singer.

Jan. 17 2011 11:43 AM
Michael Meltzer

Whether they are the most difficult of all time is hopefully, idle discussion. They are excellent, they sound like he's having fun, and they should be heard. If something else comes along that's more difficult (?),
these still should be heard, because very simply, they're good, possibly great.
Discussions of comparative merit for the purpose of "winnowing down" the selection process are a programming trap, I said that a year ago. WQXR shouldn't fall into it.
"Most Difficult" and "Ten Best" will ultimately lead to less music, repeated over and over.

Jan. 17 2011 03:19 AM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.