Click photo to enlarge
For his Thursday recital at Tanglewood's Ozawa Hall, Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin — a last-minute replacement for the previously scheduled Daniil Trifonov — pounded out sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt and little-known Russian composer Samuel Feinberg. It was a puzzling evening, to say the least.

LENOX >> There's always music to be discovered.

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin came to Tanglewood bearing two single-movement sonatas by Samuel Feinberg for his Thursday night recital, and if you've never heard of Feinberg, don't worry. Probably few others have either.

Feinberg, it turns out, was a Russian who lived from 1890 to 1962 and composed these two sonatas in 1916 and 1915, in the last years of czarist rule. According to the program notes, he turned more conservative in Stalinist times (as did many another composer, including Shostakovich), but these two densely chromatic pieces fall somewhere between Liszt and Scriabin without, on first acquaintance, exhibiting a clear personality of their own.

The Canadian Hamelin played his Ozawa Hall recital as a late replacement for Daniil Trifonov, who came down with an ear infection. As with his rediscovery of Feinberg, Hamelin appeared to be staking out a claim to originality in his playing. "I'm doing this my way," the performances seemed to say. Overstatement replaced Nelson Freire's tasteful understatement in his piano recital the previous night.

The Feinberg sonatas are finger-twisters. So are Beethoven's "Appassionata" and Liszt's Sonata, the twin keystones of the program. Both are also powerful musical statements.

Hamelin came down hard on both pieces, as well as Mozart's Sonata No. 18, K. 576. The muscle and stamina were impressive. The sound, amplified by heavy pedaling, boomed through the hall. The music came at you with undeniable force.


Advertisement

But there's only so much you can do with these old pieces without twisting them out of shape. Drilled out at top speed in the fast movements, the "Appassionata" left a sense of haste rather than accumulating mystery. Drama became melodrama.

Liszt's only sonata, in a single 30-minute movement, is tightly conceived, with musical threads running through it. It is a virtuoso showpiece, but it is also a monument of grandeur. Hamelin generated terrific thunder and lightning in the virtuoso passages. But the effects, sometimes blurring, and alternating with slow passages that dawdled, seemed to turn the larger argument into a series of disconnected incidents.

You could say that the evening's overriding sense of heaviness resulted from the last-minute call to come as a replacement. But Hamelin apparently had the program ready, since he played everything from memory.

A puzzling evening, to say the least. The audience responded with a boisterous ovation.