Chamberfest: Finding forgotten musical treasures with Marc-André Hamelin

Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo Sim Cannety-Clark

The 20th century is full of composers most people have never heard of. Their music lies hidden away, seldom played and basically unremembered.

Consider Samuil Feinberg.

He is best remembered today as one of the great teachers in the Moscow Conservatory in the early years of the Soviet Union. But he was also a pianist of some distinction. His was the first recording of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in Russia. He was also acknowledged and influenced by the pianist and composer Alexander Scriabin

Feinberg was also a pretty decent composer … enough to attract the attention of the Canadian pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin who has made the music of the obscure Russian a bit of a project.

“In his first works, the influence of Scriabin was very obvious, but later on he became very much his own man. And after a while he didn’t sound like anyone else. Basically his harmonic system and the whole of character and universe of his music put him in a place of his own,” Hamelin said in an interview before his appearance at Chamberfest on July 27.

For Hamelin, Feinberg is one of the neglected figures “and there are many. He stands out as having tremendously original voice. It is just a shame that it has almost been silenced completely. There have been some few people taking up his cause. I felt good enough about him that, even though he will never be one of the immortals, he is such an original voice and needs more exposure.”

To that end Hamelin has been focused for a few years on the first six of Feinberg’s 12 sonatas.

“I will be recording them in September. I’ve been playing them quite a bit in recital, gaining experience with them and seeing how people react to them.”

Each one he said is a very individual statement and there is a definite progression from one to the other.

“The first is sunny and optimistic. The second is already more wistful and then every one after that becomes darker and darker. In the sixth, you hit utter blackness.” The latter piece was written in 1923, just before Lenin died and at the end of the civil war that tore Russia apart after the 1917 revolution. The remaining six sonatas are less interesting, Hamelin said.

The audience at Chamberfest will get to hear the fifth and sixth sonatas on July 27. Hamelin will also play the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor with the French ensemble Quatuor Danel, along with two pieces by Chopin sandwiched between the two Russians.

“Later in life if you look at the last four sonatas Feinberg may have thought it wise to drastically simplify his language. It becomes more diatonic. It could be termed to be easier on the ears. I don’t mean to say what I am going to present is harsh on the ears or repulsive but it is very involved harmonic thinking even though it’s tonal there’s a lot of extension of this tonality. It is extremely chromatic, dark and disturbing.”

Hamelin doesn’t know much of the political and social context surrounding Feinberg. He didn’t leave a record of that.

“In this case, the music is all we have. To my mind, however, it is more than enough. There is such richness and such an unusual language, I just rejoice in exploring the music for itself without the need for extra-musical exploration.”

He got started as one who explores out-of-the-way repertoire does. He found some scores, was intrigued and started to photocopy them in the late 1980s.

“But I never did anything with it, because it is very hard to penetrate. It’s not the kind of music that you can sight-read and know immediately what the music is about.”

So, Feinberg’s music has percolated in Hamelin’s mind for many years.

Finally, and with the support of his label, Hyperion, he was ready to give it a go. 

So far so good.

“There is my own conviction about the music itself and more importantly, perhaps most importantly, are the reactions I have had from audiences so far who have seemed very intrigued.

“I don’t think it is music for everybody but those who are open to it are really intrigued by it. That gave me the impetus to go ahead and get deeply into this project.”

The mix of his Chamberfest program is not deeply planned, Hamelin said.

“There is never any deep thematic connection in what I present. I just want to provide people with a balanced evening and if I am going to do something like Feinberg I can’t really do anything else that is not well-known. If you present a whole program of novelties, people are apt to come out of the experience a bit bewildered.” 

Hence the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.

“Any of the so called five really great piano quintets, I play all the time. We are talking Brahms, Dvorak, Schumann, Franck and Shostakovich. I have recorded three and it’s literature I just love.”

He likes working with a chamber quartet. Hamelin has even written his own piano quintet and has performed it a couple of times over the past year with the Pacifica Quartet. He said it will be published and recorded eventually.

This will be his first performance with Quatuor Danel, something to which he’s looking forward.

“I like the aspect of being able to converse without words. This is a particular privilege for musicians and for me that has always been very attractive.”

Musical experiences are something Hamelin craves. Recently he had an unusual one at the Van Cliburn competition.

He was a judge in the 2017 event and he was also a composer for the competition. He was asked to prepare a piece of music that would be played by 30 competitors. The only direction he got was that it had to be between four and six minutes.

Welcome Toccata on L’homme armé.

“I heard it in competition 30 times because everybody had to play it (in the first round). It was one of the greatest learning experiences I have ever had. As a composer, who ever gets 30 premieres.

“It gave me a very rich gamut of approaches and to me that was absolutely invaluable. It’s always very interesting for a composer to hear how his notation is interpreted. Of course when you notate a work, you try to convey your intentions as clearly as possible and you hope that you are going to be followed.

“It was great in the case of the competition to hear the piece without having told anybody how to do it. They were prohibited from any contact with me … all they had was the score. In that respect, there is a wonderful quote from the composer Morton Feldman said: “I don’t go to rehearsals of my pieces because I don’t want to know what I am going to sound like after I’m dead.”

The piece now has a place in his concert repertoire.

“Since the competition I have played it in almost every recital as an encore piece. I try not to over expose myself because the piano literature is vast and wonderful and I want to sample as much as I can.”

One critic has called it devilish, but “I like to think it sounds more difficult than it actually is, because I tried to write it as pianistically as I could. None of them seemed to have any problem with it. About 70 per cent memorized it.”

Marc-André Hamelin with Quatuor Danel
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: July 27 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.