Marc-André Hamelin recalls the excitement of playing Schubert's Piano Sonata in B-flat major at a concert in 1997.
"I just wanted to record it right away — with the dumbness of youth, of course," he told us recently. But Hamelin didn't yield to that temptation. In fact he waited until now, at the age of 56, with a 76-album discography on Hyperion Records, to finally record some Schubert.
"I could have done it before," he says, "It wasn't just a question of my developing a relationship with the work, it was also waiting until the trust of the public in what I do, in what I could do with it, would become greater and greater." It's a remarkably humble statement from the pianist universally admired for his keen intellect and mastery of the repertoire's most challenging music.
"This is one of the works, such as Bach's Goldbergs, in which people expect a lot of you, because you have to be at least equal to some of the greatest recordings," he explains. "The last thing that I would want is for it to be discarded outright upon release."
No danger of that happening, though, with this project that has evidently been a labour of love for Hamelin. "This particular CD almost means more to me than everything I've ever done, combined. Because of what the music means to me," he reflects. "I always say half-jokingly that if every single one of my recitals until the day I die featured the Schubert B-flat, I wouldn't exactly be displeased."
On his new album, Hamelin pairs Schubert's aforementioned final Sonata with his second set of Impromptus, Op. 142, which he says "is probably as close to a sonata as it could be without actually being one. I mean, the key relationships are pretty much there — the first and the last Impromptus are in F minor — so there's a certain sense of closure I suppose, a certain satisfying sense of unity. Also, character-wise, there's sufficient contrast, but not too much contrast, so it can accurately masquerade as a unified work. A sonata in all but name."
He was soon as absorbed by the Impromptus as he was with the B-flat Sonata. "When I started working on the Op. 142 Impromptus, it really didn't take a lot of time before I was completely engulfed in that emotional world, and I didn't really want to be anywhere else. They occupied me for quite a while at the expense of almost anything else — including writing music [laughs]."
Hamelin tells us he hopes to turn to the Op. 90 Impromptus soon, but points out that he'll be selective when probing further into Schubert's piano music. "I don't think that everything Schubert wrote is on an even scale, and there are certain works which I respond to less than others, and others which I wouldn't necessarily ever want to engage with. The works [on this new album] just happen to strike a very resonant chord with me, very potently, so if I was going to make one Schubert recording in my life, this had to be it."
So, the wait has been worth it. "I wouldn't have signed off on this recording if I didn't think it represented fairly my thoughts on the works, or at least my present thoughts — which haven't changed really all that much over the years. Maybe my way of expressing them has refined, or at least I hope it has."
Learn more about Hamelin's new album and pre-order it here.
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The world's favourite pieces for solo piano played by contemporary masters like Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein, Angela Hewitt and Lang Lang. Hear: Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Preludes and Etudes, Mozart Sonatas, Bach Suites and Partitas, Debussy Preludes and Suites, Rachmaninov Preludes and more.