Hamelin first studied with Yvonne Hubert, a pupil of Cortot, at the École Vincent d’Indy in Montreal. He then went to America to study with Harvey Weedon and Russell Sherman at Temple University in Philadelphia where he gained a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. Hamelin’s father was a pharmacist, but also a keen amateur pianist who introduced his son to the works of Alkan, Medtner, Godowsky and Sorabji. ‘He greatly favoured pianists from the first half of the twentieth century: Hofmann, Godowsky, Paderewski, Friedman, all those people. Because that’s what he listened to, that’s what I heard – more so than any contemporary pianist. I think the most beneficial element hearing these pianists provided me with was a sense of freedom they definitely had back then.’ In June of 1975 Hamelin bought his first LP record which was of Ives’s Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord’ played by John Kirkpatrick. By the age of thirteen he was playing the work himself, and by seventeen was playing the Boulez Piano Sonata No. 2. His early years were also spent exploring and playing music by Scriabin, Villa-Lobos, Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cage, and it was not until the late 1980s that he began to fully investigate the repertoire of the late nineteenth century. In 1989 Hamelin was awarded the Virginia P. Moore Prize, the highest honour bestowed by the Canadian Arts Council.
Unwilling to join the treadmill of the competition circuit (‘a grisly subject’), Hamelin has preferred to explore the by-ways of the piano repertoire. He has performed in North America, Canada and most of Europe and participated in many of the music festivals including La Grange de Meslay, Ravinia, La Roque d’Anthéron and the BBC Proms. A series of concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1994 entitled Virtuoso Romantics was a great success and Hamelin regularly participates in the International Piano Series on the South Bank and the Wigmore Hall Masterconcert Series. In 1999 he returned to the Wigmore Hall for a three-part series entitled Exploration and Celebration.
Hamelin is now well established in Europe and North America. In addition to his London appearances he plays annually at the Herkulessaal in Munich, and recently gave six recitals in Tokyo entitled 200 Years of Pianism with Marc-André Hamelin. Hamelin has played with many major orchestras including those of Birmingham, Chicago and Philadelphia, the BBC Symphony, and the Concertgebouw under such conductors as Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, Pavel Kogan and Yan Pascal Tortelier. In the winter of 2004 Hamelin made his debut in Hong Kong.
Hamelin’s first recordings were made for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation record label, New World Records, Altarus, and Music & Arts. In January 1987, after winning the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition, Hamelin made a disc of contemporary American piano music by William Bolcolm and Stefan Wolpe and in August of that year he recorded a disc of piano music by Leopold Godowsky for CBC. A second disc for New World contains the ‘Concord’ Sonata by Ives.
For Altarus he has recorded music by Sorabji and six sonatas by Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899–1974). By the time he was recording for Music & Arts in 1992 his repertoire was slightly more conservative: a disc of Liszt including the Don Juan Fantasy and another of Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano. One disc made in Canada for Les Disques Port-Royal includes the Piano Sonatas in B flat minor by Chopin and Rachmaninov as well as Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Arabesques on themes by Johann Strauss.
A few years later Hamelin signed an exclusive contract with Hyperion Records and it is arguably this which has catapulted him into the public eye. Because Hyperion is an independent company willing and able to take a chance on lesser-known repertoire, Hamelin is the perfect artist to suit this philosophy. His large Hyperion discography to date includes discs devoted to Alkan, Catoire, Godowsky, Percy Grainger, Medtner, Ornstein, Reger, Roslavets, Rzewski and Szymanowski. He has been included in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto Series where he plays concertos by Korngold, Marx, Bolcom and Busoni. Most notable of Hamelin’s Hyperion recordings is that of Godowsky’s Complete Studies on Chopin’s Études which won The Gramophone Instrumental Award in 2000. It is a very considerable achievement and one which few, if any, pianists can match. In the same class is his recording of Busoni’s Piano Concerto Op. 39 in which Hamelin seems to reveal it to the listener in all its glory, making this vast work lucid and cogent. Terry Williams’s review of Hamelin’s complete Scriabin sonatas was headed ‘Scriabin to rival Richter’s’, and he noted ‘…Hamelin’s amazing technical skill is completely at the service of the music’. However, an American critic, when commenting on Hamelin’s recording of Medtner’s complete sonatas said, ‘Mr Hamelin identifies with this music completely; he is far more comfortable in Medtner’s earnest, earthy skin than he was in the Scriabin Sonatas, whose highly charged eroticism and symbolic ethos escaped him, in spite of his unimpeachable technical (and even intellectual) command.’
Hamelin has been instrumental in placing the greatest works of neglected nineteenth-century composer-pianists before the public, particularly those of Alkan and Godowsky. His recordings of Alkan’s Grande Sonate, and of the Concerto and Symphony for Solo Piano, as well as first recordings of two Concertos da Camera are all of the highest standard, whilst his disc of Godowsky’s Piano Sonata in E minor and Passacaglia is hardly likely to be surpassed. Two delightful compact discs entitled The Composer-Pianists and Kaleidoscope are wonderful collections of short pieces that are rarely played, and Hamelin includes five of them amongst works by Josef Hofmann, Blumenfeld, Massenet and Feinberg. Other discs include recitals of music by Villa-Lobos and the Russian composer Gyorgy Catoire. Twentieth century music by Roslavets and Ornstein makes fascinating listening, but perhaps the most impressive of Hamelin’s discs of this repertoire is of the thirty-six variations on The people united will never be defeated by Frederic Rzewski, an extraordinary tour de force that leaves one amazed at the breadth and scope of Hamelin’s repertoire.
Not adverse to mainstream repertoire, Hamelin has also recorded a Schumann disc for Hyperion, and his latest project both in the concert hall and recording studio is Albéniz’s complete Iberia.
Hamelin is without peer as a promulgator of neglected piano music, and his endeavours, in conjunction with Hyperion Records, have provided the public with some of the most interesting piano discs to be produced, rendering most other recorded versions of this repertoire redundant. He tackles music of a complexity and difficulty that few can attempt and always surpasses expectations with his mastery. Like Godowsky, Hamelin has an extraordinary digital dexterity that enables him to play anything, but, like Godowsky, while one is never aware of any technical challenges, there is occasionally perhaps a dimension of warmth, or depth, missing from some of the performances.
Hamelin also composes: some of his own études, particularly the one on Liszt’s La Campanella, are quite extraordinary in their total disregard for technical difficulties and witty humour, pushing the boundaries of technique to their limits, even beyond those of Godowsky.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Composer