An evening listening to pianist Marc-André Hamelin treat a piano keyboard similarly to how Henry Moore transformed chunks of metal demands a meditation on the meaning of difficulty.
It all starts with latent difficulty — in this case the printed scores for Hamelin’s Tuesday night recital for Music Toronto at the Jane Mallett Theatre.
There are few pieces in the piano canon more challenging than Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, or Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2.
To these Hamelin added the Impromptu No. 2 and Barcarolle No. 3 by Gabriel Fauré as well as two Preludes by Rachmaninov (Op. 32, Nos 5 & 12), pieces full of fast-moving notes needing to sound inconsequential yet sweet, like the musical equivalent of puff pastry.
The pianist also played a big-and-blustery transcription by Theodor Szántó of J.S. Bach’s G minor Fantasia and Fugue for organ.
Perhaps the most difficult of all was Hamelin’s own 2011 creation, a diabolical set of Variations on a Theme by Paganini that played with humour and expectations as much as with pushing the envelope of classical taste.
The latent difficulties in all these scores are physical, technical.
How is any pianist supposed to wrap 10 fingers around music that would be more easily played with 20?
That doesn’t begin to address artistic difficulties, of turning piles of notes into coherent expressions, phrases, breaths, echoes and accompaniments.
Not only did Hamelin overcome the technical hurdles, he shaped each piece into something beautiful to behold — polished, glowing even. The power of this beauty obliterated any reminder of how difficult this achievement may be.
Hamelin further banished any thoughts of difficulty by sitting at the piano bench with a calm ease. There were no visible signs of strain or sweat. Just a polite bow at the end of each set of pieces.
Does making the difficult look and sound so easy undermine the hundreds and hundreds of hours of careful, determined practice time and musical analysis that no doubt went into Tuesday’s performance?
No. This is the way it’s supposed to be.
Hamelin made sure all we heard was music — not challenges or difficulties — rendered as beautifully as he was physiologically and psychologically able to.
In short, this was one of the finest solo recitals we’ve heard in Toronto in a while.
Living up to it is going to be — difficult.