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 Recording of the Week  Hamelin proves his real class with Chopin

It has been a great start to the new year in terms of quality new releases and one which I’ve been enjoying this week is a new recording by the French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin of Chopin’s Second and Third Piano Sonatas. He is still only in his 40s but has an extensive discography already (mainly on Hyperion). However, I often find it hard to appreciate just how good he is because he seems to specialise in lesser-known composers - mainly late 19th/early 20th century - and works by pianist-composers such as Godowsky, Alkan and Kapustin. While it is easy to appreciate someone’s technical ability from such discs, I find that if you have never heard the works before, it is quite hard to gauge how good the performances actually are. I get the impression that reviewers have the same problem, as reviews of these discs tend to concentrate on a potted history of the composer and the work and say very little about the actual performances.

Marc-André Hamelin
Marc-André Hamelin

Chopin’s Piano Sonatas however are very much mainstream Romantic repertoire (we’ve got nearly one hundred different recordings of each currently listed) and so for once all ears then are on Hamelin’s performances rather than the works. Well, despite a slightly iffy review in the Guardian last week I think these are tremendous. Because he seems to start from a position of being able to play all the notes without any apparent difficulty, he is able to concentrate on aspects of the music that you rarely get to hear elsewhere. Chopin often hides melodies in the inner parts and while for most pianists it is hard enough to make them heard at all, Hamelin is also able to give them shape and a real sensitivity. I suppose you need a remarkable technique to play in that way, but you also need a deep musical understanding and an affinity with the composer’s intentions and in this disc, probably more than any of his previous ones, Hamelin demonstrates that he really is a great musician as well as a phenomenal pianist.

Of course there are also opportunities to witness his virtuosic mastery with lightning semiquavers providing both edge-of-your-seat moments and real atmospheric scene painting (listen to the rising bass passage for example towards the end of the first extract below).

It is just out, and whether you’re already familiar with the sonatas or are coming to them for the first time this comes highly recommended.

Chopin - Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3 (and other works)

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Available Format: CD