- Piano Music by Marc-André Hamelin
Marc-André 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 Études 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 [End Page 186] 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: “Étude à mouvement perpétuellement semblable (d’après Alkan),” and his final Prelude and Fugue serve as compositional models that are innovative and creative, yet utilize traditional formal structures.