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"It's all about subtlety:" Marc-André Hamelin plays Fauré

Marc-André Hamelin leans on an open piano
Sim Cannety-Clark
Marc-André Hamelin

Marc-André Hamelin's recent album of piano works by Gabriel Fauré appeared on many "Best of 2023" lists. Tyler Alderson sat down with the pianist to talk about his approach to the music, a special collaborator on the album, and what he's planning to do next.

Tyler Alderson So, this is not something that I would need justification to do because I just love Fauré. I think he's a very underappreciated composer, and especially some of his piano music is very underappreciated. But I was wondering, what was the impetus to dive into the Nocturnes, the Barcarolles, and then Dolly for four hands?

Marc-Andre Hamelin Well, it's always been in the back of my mind, I guess I could say. I love that period of music history, the period that straddles the 19th and 20th Centuries, full of wonderful imagination and a kind of a freeing of tonal and atonal possibilities. But in the case of Fauré, it's hard to define, I think what makes him so special. I mean, you can analyze it to kingdom come, you know, but the strength of the ideas, you know, couched in such a beautiful language, tons of harmonic surprises, you know, and a true melodic gift. And so the melding of all these things, I think, is what makes him really, really special.

Tyler Alderson You mentioned something that I think is both his greatest strength and also the reason why he's often overlooked, is that melodic ear. He is able to create gorgeous melodies in a way that I think people then put him into the salon music category and a pianist might — I don't know if you've used him as an encore, but a pianist might say, "Okay, it's a nice little encore piece," and that's that. But I was just wondering how, as a pianist, you approach that? It's just a spectacular sense of melody with much more interesting things going under the hood than people might look at, at first.

Marc-Andre Hamelin Well, certainly, yes. And also, what I didn't say was that pianistically, on an instrumental level, it's couched in a wonderful kind of language which really exploits the rich textures that a piano can produce. And it's always an exquisite fabric. There's a lot of counterpoint also, and if you have a really cooperative instrument on which you can handle the pedal sensitively, then I mean the sky's the limit. It's an utter pleasure to play.

Tyler Alderson Well, I wanted to ask you about that specifically. I will say that I play piano, I can plunk out a couple of notes. That's about it. I can't say I can play piano when I'm sitting next to you. But I've heard from a pianist that his music just fits different under the fingers than something like the Chopins, the Liszts, the real well-known piano writers, those ones that you always go back to. And I was wondering about that. What does that mean? Is it particularly difficult or just strange or . . .?

Marc-Andre Hamelin One of the reasons that you really don't hear him very much, especially played by young people, is that he is practically devoid of what you would call, and I hate to use this word, flash. This is not the kind of music where young pianists could really shine in a physical way, in an outward way. I mean, it's all about subtlety. These pieces generally are not featured, with some exceptions, I think, in competitions. As a matter of fact, I can speak from experience. In the late 70s, I was doing a small competition. There was just three of us. I finished with one of the Études-Tableaux of Rachmaninoff, the A minor one, which is Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Opus 39, No. 6, and before that I played, the Fauré 3rd barcarolle. And one of the judges, a well-known pianist who I will not name, said, "What were you doing playing that? That's not a competition piece." And even then I thought, "This is just completely wrongheaded." I mean, the amount of subtlety, the amount of sweat and tears that you have to expend, you know, to make this music sound like it should. He just didn't appreciate it. He was expecting flash and nothing else, you know. But it seems like subtlety doesn't have any value.

Tyler Alderson There's more to technique than just dexterity or speed.

Marc-Andre Hamelin Technique is a wrongly used word. It's a misnomer, because when people refer to technique, they really mean mechanics, pianistic mechanics, because the technique really encompasses all of the means that an artist has at his or her disposal in order to bring the music to life, whether it's corporal, or mental, or emotional.

Tyler Alderson I've often found that when you're talking about a beginner or a novice, thinking about an expert musician, they think, "Oh, fast, and heavy, and crazy." And when you get up to that skill level, suddenly you realize sometimes the hardest things to play are the simplest. Some slow passage that, as you say, mechanically might not pose difficulties.

Marc-Andre Hamelin To achieve simplicity can be an agonizing thing [laughs]. To make it seem effortless and completely natural, you know, sometimes it requires a lot of work, and a lot of thinking, and a lot of reflection.

Tyler Alderson You mentioned youth, and I just one of the things that fascinates me about this particular collection is you're talking about pieces that span from, I believe 1875 was the first nocturne, all the way to the final barcarolles being published in the 1920s, just a few years before Fauré passed away. So you're talking about, as you mentioned, not just 46 years in the life of a person, but an extraordinarily interesting time in music. And I was wondering, did you approach these chronologically at all? Did you have any sense as you were playing them of when you were playing younger Fauré, older Fauré?

Marc-Andre Hamelin No, I simply busied myself with making whatever language he was using at the time, you know, ring the truest, ring true as much as possible. I did not work on them chronologically. I just kept reading them at random, you know, sight reading them. And it was a very gradual penetration of the material. And I didn't plan necessarily my practicing them, and I just went with, "Oh, let's read that one, or this one and let's go back to that one. You know, this one I didn't give that much attention to. Let's go to it." That kind of thing. I had the luxury, because this was a pandemic project, after all, to have a lot of time to prepare. If I add everything up, you know, something like 2 or 3 years. And I wanted to get into the studio before - I would have gotten near the studio before. But this is a case where the pandemic really had a beneficial effect, because it gave me more time to live with the music.

And I haven't performed very much of it in public, I confess. But that's not necessarily a handicap. And before I started to work on all of the nocturnes and barcarolles, I had played exactly three solo pieces of Fauré in public, plus the Ballade for Piano and Orchestra. It's the third barcarolle, and then the second impromptu, which isn't even on the CD, and the sixth nocturne. That's it. So it was a very wonderful period of discovery. I realized that the rest of his piano output, it was just as wonderful as what I already knew.

Tyler Alderson Well, why don't we listen to one of them? I wanted to go to that earliest piece because it shows basically not only where he's starting from, but I think it has some hallmarks of where the genre of nocturnes is coming from. And I'm sure you know where I'm going, but I'd love to listen to just the first few seconds of this.

Marc-André Hamelin Let's keep in mind that he didn't necessarily want to put any titles to his piano pieces. I mean, he would have been happy with "Piano Piece Number So and So," you know. This piece in particular, the nocturne, the title "Nocturne" fits very well. Just listen to this beginning.

[Fauré's Nocturne No. 1 in E-flat minor]

Tyler Alderson There's some definite flavors of the guy that I think most people think of when they think of nocturnes in here, of Chopin, and as you say, if the title fits any of these, this is one where it definitely would make sense. I was wondering what you felt from these, you know, in some of his earlier nocturnes in terms of those influences. Can you draw as you were playing them, any connections to some of the music that he might have been listening to at the time?

Marc-André Hamelin There is every possibility to discern some influences, you know, but I really preferred not doing that, because I was assuming from the get-go that he was being himself. 100%. And that's how I approached the entire corpus of his works. There were no places where I could say, "Oh, this is a little too uncomfortably close to Chopin," or something like that, or any other composer you might name. No, I think he's really himself, and that's one of the reasons I love him so much and I appreciate him.

Tyler Alderson One of the things that I've also loved about him, and I always used to contrast with Saint-Saëns, Saint-Saëns became quite the conservative in his later years. You can read these long screeds he wrote about Debussy, and some of these new newfangled composers that were coming along. And Fauré, even if he didn't necessarily always understand, he seemed to take in a lot of that. He mentored and taught Ravel. He took in some of that newer language in his writing. I was wondering about that, especially there seems to be an open mindedness in Fauré that is perhaps different. What he was, as you say, his voice changed over his lifetime, more so than some other composers.

Marc-André Hamelin Yes, I did find that the later works, in addition to being more sparse in texture, I mean that you don't feel that he's as mellifluous, pianistically, as he was in the early stages. Besides leaner texture, the harmony is a little bit more intractable, I guess. If you take the beginning of the 13th Nocturne, for example, that took me a long time to hear exactly everything that he wanted me to hear, and to really, really grasp the implications of this rather simple texture of harmony, you know. When I finally did, you know, it was . . . it became a real delight, and a fascination.

Tyler Alderson I wanted to get a little bit into that harmony aspect because as I mentioned before, there's a sort of a a melodic quality to a lot of his music, and especially the earlier bits that you can sing, you could hum, you could walk out in the street and hum these melodies. And yet he does something with all of these hummable melodies that has such a really interesting underpinning. You are not talking about conventional "toss it together, harmony, and throw it on a page." The one that stands out to me the most in that regard, in many ways, is the 12th Barcarolle, which starts out with about as straightforward and, you know, simple a melody as you can get. And just progressively throughout the piece throws different interesting facets in until you're not in this simple, singable language anymore - you can still hear the melody, but there's all kinds of stuff underneath. I'm wondering when you're playing it, how does that factor into how you start diving in from these lovely, gorgeous, rolling melodies into something a little different, little darker, a little more complex?

Marc-André Hamelin Interesting you mention that one, because the most difficult thing about it is that when the opening material returns, it's treated as a canon between the top voice and somewhere in the left hand. And you have to make these two voices very clear. And I found that to be extremely difficult.

[Fauré's Barcarolle No. 12 in E-flat Major]

Tyler Alderson Love, just that opening melody. It's so free. It's something - I almost felt like it was something you could hear in a musical or something, a movie musical.

Marc-André Hamelin I find it's very sunny.

Tyler Alderson Yes.

Marc-André Hamelin Especially after hearing the ninth, tenth, and eleventh barcarolles. If you hear them sequentially, of course, which are really quite dark and bleak. And suddenly this one comes, and the 13th, you know, which is also very optimistic.

Tyler Alderson It's such an interesting sound to it. And yet, as it goes on and it starts . . . the ground shifts a little bit underneath that melody, which I absolutely love.

The other piece that is on this release, which I think is just a lot of fun, is Dolly, written for piano four hands, and I was wondering when you're ever playing piano four hands with a partner, what's the most important part of that connection between the two of you? Because you and your partner on this one had a pretty special connection.

Marc-André Hamelin Yes, of course. Strictly musically speaking, I mean, when you play four hands, I think it's much more difficult than playing on two pianos, simply because you're dealing with two people, two different minds, and two different hearts controlling one single instrument and making it sound as if, hypothetically at least, one person is playing. That's a tall order, considering that you only have one damper pedal between the two of you [laughs] and somebody who's got to control it. So it's good to have as much understanding as possible. And I think that it requires more practice than playing on two pianos.

Tyler Alderson It's something that I always notice. It seems to be siblings that end up doing a lot of the four hands these days.

Marc-André Hamelin Yes, it seems that way, but I really wanted my wife, Cathy, who [laughs] is very well known in these parts. I really wanted to do something with her. It was entirely my idea because she would never have barged into a project I was doing, you know, she would never do that. But she was very, very happy to be part of it. And I'm really, really thrilled at the outcome.

Tyler Alderson Yeah, it's wonderful to hear her play. Marc's wife, Cathy Fuller, long time WCRB host that you can hear in the evenings here. And let's just get a taste of Dolly. This is a final movement which [has] got a bit of a Spanish flavor, that was all the rage at the time.

[Le Pas Espagnol from Fauré's Dolly Suite]

Tyler Alderson There's just such life and energy in it, and I'm not just talking about the music. I mean in your playing of it. I had imagined that recording this was a lot of fun.

Marc-André Hamelin Oh yes. And we had a wonderful piano and it was a wonderful setting. It was a church in London. It was so wonderful also to be able to work together.

Tyler Alderson Now, you mentioned that you haven't necessarily played a lot of this music live, is there any sense that you will do any kind of recital or, you know, anything coming up?

Marc-André Hamelin Well, since the recording, actually, I included a Fauré group.

Tyler Alderson And what's next? Just before we started recording, you're talking about a prepared piano piece and another upcoming recording that's just starting to take shape.

Marc-André Hamelin Yes, I've been planning a one-CD collection of pieces from the 20th and 21st Century that I particularly have enjoyed. And one of them is The Perilous Night by John Cage, which is a tiny little masterpiece for prepared piano.

Tyler Alderson And just for anyone who doesn't know, prepared piano means that you're not playing a piano as you normally might find it. There's been all kinds of stuff done to it to make it sound . . . I can only say weird, there's probably a better way to put it.

Marc-André Hamelin Well, it was a real purpose behind this. The thing is that sometime in the '30s, Cage was asked to write music for choreography in a theater. It was for a solo dancer, and at that time he was writing a lot of percussion ensemble music, and there would not have been room for anything other than the dancer and a small piano. So he started experimenting with changing the sonority of the piano. Basically, the prepared piano is very close to having a percussion ensemble within the control of a single player, which was very attractive. So no rehearsal problems, you know, I mean, at that period, Edgard Varèse's piece for 13 percussionists, Ionization, I mean, you could have like 20, 25 rehearsals, and still have it sound kind of "ehh". But now that we have more experience, I mean, in two rehearsals, you can get a better performance. But back then, that's what made the prospect of the prepared piano especially attractive.

Tyler Alderson Well, I'm looking forward to hearing that, and I would highly recommend anybody who is a Fauré fan, Marc-André Hamelin fan, a piano fan in general, check out your latest release, "Nocturnes, Barcarolles and Dolly by Gabriel Fauré." Marc, thank you so much for coming on.

Marc-André Hamelin And thank you.

Tyler Alderson was formerly Operations Manager for CRB.