lunes, 12 de octubre de 2015


Brahms and Liszt did it. Rachmaninoff did it, writing a rhapsody cum concerto. Lutoslawski did it, first for two pianos, then for piano and orchestra. Virtuosos of a golden age, like Ignaz Friedman, did it. And now Marc-André Hamelin, the prince of pianist-composers today, has done it, too.

Pianists are not the only musicians to have used Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, with its knotty turns and inviting fifths, as the basis for sets of variations. Violinists like Nathan Milstein and Eugène Ysaÿewrote their own showpieces based on this Ur-showpiece. Even Benny Goodman tried it out.
None, though, wrote anything quite so irreverent as Mr. Hamelin, who played his “Variations on a Theme by Paganini” (2011) during a solid Peoples’ Symphony concert at Washington Irving High School in the Flatiron district on Saturday. His are not only a bravura technical challenge; they are also a loving, wry tribute to the genre of variations itself.
Moreover, they are a tour of his fertile compositional mind, a set of meta-variations, if you will. Beethoven makes a couple of sly appearances, with one variation summoning his Op. 109 sonata, and another hosting an eruptive recollection of the battering cadences that close the first movement of the Symphony No. 5. Liszt pops up while an evocation of the tremulous “La Campanella” — itself a setting ofanother Paganini work — startlingly reveals the theme. And the swooning 18th variation of Rachmaninoff’s own set becomes the 13th here, (unluckily) turned upside down.
Mr. Hamelin’s recent appearances in New York have dispelled the old idea that his talents lie mostly in reconnecting the piano to a forgotten repertoire. This performance, too, was uncommonly commonplace.
After intermission came Schubert’s “Impromptus” (D. 935), replete with delicious touches and a sublime plasticity of phrase, a Schubert in high Romantic style rather than the Schubert on the shrink’s couch more commonly heard today. Before that there was magical Debussy, the second book of “Images,” with a jolly “Poissons d’Or” painted so immaculately you could practically hear water washing off goldfish fins. Only a Mozart sonata, the K. 576 in D, left me unconvinced, its hardness of edge more appropriate to the Haydn heard as a captivating encore.

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