Chamberfest review: Marc-André Hamelin, Quatuor Danel deliver highlight of the year concert

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo: Sim Cannety Clark

Canada’s Marc-André Hamelin is one of the true rock stars of piano, regularly selling out halls all over the world. So it was surprising to see several empty pews at his Chamberfest appearance Friday night with the Quatuor Danel at Dominion-Chalmers.

Is this instance, there was no conflicting concert; perhaps the additional ticket cost was a factor. But if even a mega-name like Hamelin can’t fill a room, it makes you wonder about the sustainability of the status quo in Ottawa’s summer classical scene. It’s a crying shame for anyone who missed the concert, which will go down as one of the highlights of the entire year.

In the first half, Hamelin performed a solo recital of works by Chopin and the little-known Samuil Feinberg, a contemporary of Prokofiev and Stravinsky. One of Hamelin’s most appealing traits is his intellectual curiosity: he’s constantly bringing new or neglected composers and repertoire into the light, while never turning his back on standard repertoire.

Feinberg, a virtuoso pianist and renowned pedagogue who never pursued recognition for his composing, was known at the Moscow Conservatory as ‘Scriabin’s heir.’ The two late, single-movement sonatas Hamelin performed can best be described as Scriabin on steroids.

No. 5 in E minor opens with a plaintive, moaning theme sandwiched between opaque, slippery layers of chromatic chords. No. 6 in B minor is built on an uneasy three-note motif — a fourth followed by a diminished fifth — and is marked by an oppressive, pitch-black mood that doesn’t let up until the final notes. Throughout both, Hamelin brilliantly highlighted the conflict between old-fashioned Imperial romanticism and cynical, Soviet modernity. The sonatas also demand staggering technique, and Hamelin’s playing showed both colossal power and superhuman control. The final moments of the sixth sonata, an unexpected shift to a simple, quiet major chord after pages of agonized tumult, was like the first stars coming out after a violent night thunderstorm.

The two Chopin works were more familiar territory for the audience. The broad, wistful introduction to the A-flat major Polonaise Fantaisie was followed by the most impeccable bel canto playing and imaginative, crystal-clear voicing. The fourth Scherzo was taken at dazzling velocity, with scintillating jeu perlé and a robust sense of playfulness.

France’s Quatuor Danel joined Hamelin after the intermission for the Shostakovich Piano Quintet. You would never have known Marc Danel, the first violinist, was playing with a painful left-hand sprain. Danel is an unusually physically exuberant lead, whipping his bow back dramatically in finales, often raising one or both feet off the floor, bending one leg around the other in the air, like a sort of bespectacled heron.

The quartet played with an astringent, tightly focused sound, ferocious attack, and terrific complicity with each other and with their guest pianist. The conversational, dignified Prelude was followed by a Fugue painted in cool, bone-white tones, the five musicians building dimensional structure, brick by transparent brick. There was a kind of sneering mockery bubbling beneath the boisterous Scherzo. The long, patient crescendo of the Intermezzo had orchestral depth and texture, leading into the jaunty, sly whimsy of the Finale.

The applause as was so long and sincerely enthusiastic that the quintet returned to reprise the Scherzo as an encore. You can see Quatuor Danel perform at the National Gallery of Canada on Sunday. For more, please see

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.