There’s much mystique about the prodigious brains of artists. Marc-Andre Hamelin is the kind of pianist who bears such conceptions out. He has a phenomenal memory, huge technical ability and a taste for the less-known corners of the repertory, often virtuoso pieces that don’t get played often because they are unfamiliar to audiences and difficult to learn. Hamelin, though, doesn’t seem to find anything difficult. For his recital Monday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, he offered curiosities in the first half and one of the great works of the canon in the second. He played all three pieces with no apparent technical difficulty, with near-clinical precision, and yet with a cold inner fire and a sense that he had left his soul on stage when he had finished.
Hamelin is a curious balance. He’s not a heart-on-the-sleeve player; the sense of exactitude gives a slightly scientific feeling to much of his playing. Yet he can thunder out the fireworks more ardently, and loudly, than any 20-year-old wunderkind. Listening to him, you have the sense of a large brain looking for ways to express everything it is thinking, pushing up against the limits of the keyboard and its dynamics. But you do not lose yourself in the emotion so much as admire its being unfolded before you, in all its kaleidoscopic permutations.
The program opened with an andante by John Field, an Irish-born pianist and composer who was a little older, and a little longer-lived, than Schubert, and whose main claim to fame these days lies in having coined “nocturne” as a term for a kind of piano work. It formed a graceful and ingratiating amuse-bouche, unfolding gently before Hamelin reeled it back and went on to the main course, the fiendishly hard, intense, varied “Night Wind” sonata by Nikolai Medtner. This is pure virtuoso stuff, with lots of drama and lots of variety, but I had trouble connecting to it on a deeper level than mere appreciation of Hamelin’s ferocious fingers.
Then Hamelin deliberately changed gears and gave himself perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Originally scheduled to play Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux,” he switched the program and offered the same composer’s great B-flat Major sonata, D. 960, instead — a piece that journeys far beyond technical aplomb into profound emotional depths. It was fascinating to hear Hamelin extend into terrain that didn’t sound completely natural to him but that he unrelentingly embraced and almost forced to be his own, reaching for a rounder and gentler sound, though sometimes relapsing into slightly overloud fortes. Not surprisingly, the ethereal second movement was the biggest stretch for him, and the more dextrous final movements were the most squarely in his wheelhouse. But watching someone bring such obvious thought and love to music that called on him to draw on every reserve of emotion proved, to me, more intriguing and in ways poignant than many performances by Schubert specialists. The audience got to its feet with resounding applause and would have welcomed an encore, but Hamelin had given his all.