French Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin (Fran Kaufman)

A celebration of the 50th anniversary of the International Piano Archives at Maryland (IPAM), one of the region’s outstanding cultural resources, was launched in style Sunday afternoon with a recital by the distinguished French Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Hamelin has a reputation for championing unfamiliar composers and seems to relish music that makes daunting technical demands. He also may be the purest representative of the vaunted French school of piano playing that North America has produced. For one thing, he sits quietly at the instrument, with his hands devoid of even the slightest extraneous movement. They are a joy to watch.

In a program perfectly suited to honor IPAM, the first half was devoted to early-20th-century Russian music. Two ardently youthful works, the First and Second Sonatas of Samuil Feinberg, a composer still better known in the West as a pianist and teacher, were shot through with originality, despite any superficial resemblances to Alexander Scriabin. Hamelin was equally persuasive in Nikolai Medtner’s Second Sonata, a big bear of a piece lasting 30 minutes, with textures as dense as the Rachmaninoff sonatas.

After intermission and an informative onstage conversation with IPAM Director Donald Manildi, Hamelin shifted gears from awesome piano playing to transcendent. The first book of Debussy’s “Images” brought to mind this line of Baudelaire: “Luxe, calme, et volupté” (pleasure, peace and opulence). Each note of “Reflets dans l’eau” was imbued with a unique character and color that subtly contributed to the whole, while the gentle, yearning melancholy enveloping “Hommage à Rameau” left no harmonic implication uncertain. A whirling, incandescent “Mouvement,” no less effective for its understatement, created a study in subtlety and finesse.

Hamelin’s performance of “Venezia e Napoli,” the supplement to the Italian Year of Liszt’s “Années de pèlerinage,” had nothing to do with loud and fast, though there was plenty of both when called for. Phrasing was natural, direct and balanced. The delicate fioratura, or blossoming passages, with which Liszt embellishes the Italian songs quoted in these pieces, hung in the air like gossamer haloes of sound. Above all, it was the simplicity of approach that allowed the music to rise to the level of exalted declamation of great poetry. This was playing that restored the concept of virtue to the term virtuoso, leaving no doubt that Hamelin is one of the finest Liszt players today.

Rucker is a freelance writer.