Virtuoso pianists tend to be divided into two groups: those of supreme technical ability and those with a profound aptitude for expression. These two groups are often treated as if they were mutually exclusive, and critics are fond of exclaiming when a member of one group shows himself able to travel into the terrain of the other.
The Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is a prime example of this kind of crossover artist. His technical facility is breathtaking: The piano quivers and trembles under his thunderous assault. But his sensitivity is also superb. In a recital of the music of Chopin and Charles-Valentin Alkan that was never less than engaging, he linked two composers — one familiar, one not — by underlining their similarities, not to say their operatic sides. Aching melodies and long arcing lines, constantly emerging before sinking again into clouds of bristling notes.
The concert on Monday was presented by Pro Musica Hebraica, now in its fifth season of presenting music by Jewish composers but still not as well known as it could be, which might explain the empty seats in the Terrace Theater (despite the concert’s sold-out status) or the fact that a musician of Hamelin’s stature was playing in the intimacy of the Terrace Theater at all. A small hall is still the best place to hear piano music, even music as large-scale as that offered here: Hamelin finished with the four-movement symphony section of Alkan’s “Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineurs,” which puts the piano through organ-like paces. His Chopin was equally large-scale: not only the Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, sounding engagingly quirky in the third movement and veritably Tchaikovskian in the fourth, but even the Barcarolle in F-sharp, which especially in this small space sounded less like a song of Venetian canals than of the Atlantic Ocean.
But to describe it thus doesn’t do justice to Hamelin’s exquisite taste: the delicacy of the arabesques that concluded Alkan’s “Aime-moi,” the first of his “Trois Morceaux dans le genre pathetique,” or the wistful chromatic wispiness of the gentle little prelude by Leonid Sabaneyev that he played as his first encore.
Hamelin also did an outstanding job bringing across a lot of unfamiliar music to the audience. Alkan was once a star performer and later a recluse, long associated with the spurious but dramatic story that he died pulling the Talmud from a bookshelf that collapsed on him (Charles Krauthammer, the columnist who founded Pro Musica Hebraica with his wife, Robyn, said in his introduction from the stage that this accorded perfectly with his own impression of the Talmud, “beautiful but deadly”). His work is technically difficult and quintessentially romantic, making it an ideal vehicle for Hamelin, who certainly made a case for getting to know it better.
But Hamelin also uttered his general responsibility as a performer when introducing his second encore, a set of Paganini variations that he wrote himself. (He has recorded a CD of his compositions that is well worth hearing.) It was, he said, a little long for an encore, lasting 10 minutes. “My task,” he said, “is to make it seem short.” He proceeded to play it so engagingly that the audience was laughing along with some of the more extreme variations — one with comedic boogie-woogie asides, one of phenomenal technical difficulty — and jumped to its feet when he was done.