Marc-André Hamelin's Études

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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
Hyperion
Available at Arkivmusic.com