Interview with Marc-André Hamelin

This post is part of our Festival Countdown newsletters. To see other newsletters click here.

Marc-André, we’re delighted to have you joining us in august with a wonderfully rich programme of Herz, C.P.E. Bach, Schubert, and Schumann at the 2019 Machynlleth Festival. Wonderfully rich is a fairly apt description of your repertoire at large – as a recording artist your discography is staggering – I was wondering if you could share with us what your process is when first approaching a new piece of work?

Well, it really depends on what it is, and it depends on how familiar I was before actually tackling it myself. Sometimes it’s a completely new piece, and sometimes I’ve known it all my life but never actually had it under my fingers, so the approach in either case would be very different.

And to what extent would you say that your background as a composer influences how you approach the scores of other composers – whether that plays a large role in your interpretations, and whether it fosters any mutual understanding?

It plays such a large role in fact, that I am very admiring of interpreters who are not composers, because I think that being a composer gives you an invaluable insight as to the genesis of a work, and of how a work is constructed, and what may have inspired the composer to write down such a work. I think that being a composer yourself brings you a couple of steps closer to understanding that creative process. When you compose yourself, you take the works that you interpret much less for granted and realise at least part of what went into their creation. Also, on a more technical level it helps to have much more respect for the many details in a score and the importance of understanding and interpreting physical notation – because every composer writes differently and understands music differently, and will express themselves with it differently. Notation is really the only means we have of translating our thoughts as composers, so if you have learned how to deal with notation yourself, then you have a better chance of making the right decisions as an interpreter.

Undoubtedly, and holding that same line of thought to some of the works that you’ll be performing with us here at the Machynlleth Festival – I wondered whether these are new works for you, so to speak, and what your relationship with these pieces is as an interpreter?

Well, firstly let me establish the programme because it is a little unusual. I’ve been doing a very different programme for the whole season.

In the case of the Herz variations, it’s really a piece of fluff from the 19th Century. This is the kind of thing that some virtuosos like Herz and Thalberg and even Liszt provided by the bushel. It was to make the operas that they paraphrase more popular as performances were relatively rare, and also let’s say honestly it was to impress the crowds with their brilliant piano playing. (laughs) I do think this particular set of variations distinguishes itself, however. A lot of these pieces have very little substance, it’s all flash, and after a performance of them you’re often left with a kind of empty feeling. Whereas this one I think, distinguished itself from the pattern, because it’s actually quite charming, and the proportions are great, and on the whole I think it’s really one of the most accessible little sets of variations of that kind from the 19th Century. All of Herz’s large body of piano music is almost totally forgotten, his piano Concerti have been recorded – there are eight of them – but on the whole his brand of musicianship hasn’t survived very well because its either salon fare or superficial concert piano, but I do think this particular piece is worth reviving, it’s certainly worth hearing.

As far as the C.P.E. Bach is concerned, that is rather a recent revelation for me. About 10 years ago or so, I heard a recording of Mikhail Pletnev on Deutsche Grammophon devoted to C.P.E. Bach – my wife is a radio producer and announcer at the WCPH radio station here in Boston, and she actually played one of the sonatas from this recording and I was really very smitten by it, I was just stunned by it. One of the most remarkable things about it is that though the whole thing is not much more than 7 minutes long, he manages – or he has the audacity – to end the whole piece in the middle of the phrase, he just cuts it off. And for something written in the 1780s it’s really quite something. It’s a very avant-garde thing to do, and at least for that reason the piece fascinated me – though I do like the rest of it as well (laughs).

There is not much I can say about the Schumann Fantasie or the Schubert that almost anybody could say better, except that I have lived with these works for a long time and they are good friends. The pleasure of performing them is almost inexhaustible because they are so rich in content and so rich in implication that it is always a renewed pleasure to perform them. There will always be new things that revel themselves each performance.

What do you do to mentally – or physically – to prepare before a performance?

I don’t get consciously nervous, I’ve always been very fortunate that even from the very beginning of my career I have always regarded the public as a friend. I basically approach any concert with a feeling of an experience to be shared, it’s really an offering – practically a love offering to the public, I’m there to say look how beautiful this is, or, look what you’ve been missing.

It must be wonderful as a performer to feel as though each performance is a shared experience – that your communication with the audience is something you can revel in.

Yes, and I do realise that I’m very lucky in that. Even some of the greatest interpreters, some of the most legendary names were petrified in front of audiences – some of them even had to be pushed onto the stage!

You have travelled all over the world sharing with different audiences and I know for a fact that you have performed in some spectacular venues – would you be able to share in a few favourites of these with us?

Well, I should mention the Wigmore, and of course, the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Albert Hall is one of the most special feelings you could ever have, and I’m glad to say that I’ll be experiencing it again this year because I have a Prom on August 28th. There are some Japanese halls that are absolutely marvellous, the Meyerson auditorium in Dallas where the orchestra plays in Texas is pretty terrific, and I’m sure there are quite a few more which I am forgetting.

We have a rather unique venue here for the Machynlleth Festival, the Tabernacle. It’s a very intimate space, a converted Wesleyan Church, which is really quite sparse, but the acoustics are fantastic. The Tabernacle also functions as a congregational space so is able to facilitate a real sense of shared experience between performers and audiences similar to that which you referred earlier. Can you think of any venues which you have performed in that stand out for these same reasons?

There is actually a small hall that I just played in a few weeks ago in the province of Quebec, it’s in a very small town and the venue itself is actually an academy called the Domaine Forget, and, I’m convinced it’s one of the very best small halls in the world. There are quite a few exceptional recordings that have been made there. It’s relatively new, but it’s one of the most acoustically successful projects in recent years that I can think of.

And do you find that there is a notable or significant difference between performing in a smaller, more intimate venue like the Wigmore or a much larger space like the Albert Hall?

Well, whatever differences there may be, they are ones that I am not aware of because my degree of commitment to the music and to the audiences is always the same no matter what I do. There’s a more marked difference – so says everybody who knows my playing – between my live performances and my studio recordings. Though, again I have to say that in these two instances the degree of commitment is exactly the same because I’m there to serve the music, but, in the case of a live performance there is a public that I can feel and I can see that I am playing for.

I do have a few more questions which are slightly more general. Firstly, if you weren’t a world-class musician, which other occupation would you turn your hands to?

If I had to examine my various interests, I’ve always had a fascination with languages. I don’t know how this interest would have manifested itself, whether as a translator or a linguist or whatnot. And I say this only as one who speaks two languages – my native language is actually French. But I have always been fascinated with communication and if I got off my behind I’d like to learn a couple more languages, I think it would serve me well.

It seems a very apt choice too given that you’ve expressed how you find performances to be an act of communication. Is there a particular piece of music that you would play on a bad day to make yourself feel better?

(laughing) There is not just one. As I discover new things these pieces tend to change. I can’t really think of one at the moment, but I can tell you that it has happened, yes.

Are there any particular genres beyond classical that you enjoy playing or just listening to?

Playing – not so much, because one thing that I wish I had had early on was jazz training, musically it is a completely different plain of thought altogether. As far as listening to anything, I’m basically open to anything that shows a little imagination.

I enjoy how you describe yourself as willing to listen to anything that shows a little imagination. I think that’s wonderful criteria to have when listening to any music.

Yes, well, I would say, for example, I have been a fan of Frank Zappa for a long time, almost 40 years. I think I have heard almost everything he’s ever done – I don’t listen to it as much anymore, but still I am very fond of his music.

If you could recommend me a piece of music either that you listen to or that you have enjoyed playing that you would deem to be a ‘hidden gem’ so to speak, what would it be?

Wow. Well, I don’t know whether it’s a hidden gem, but one of my more recent recordings is a piece by Morton Feldmen called For Bunita Marcus which I did for Hyperion. It’s very remote from almost everything I’ve ever done for them – I’ve done very little new music and this piece was written in 1985. But I’d say if classical music listeners are looking for a different experience, very remote from what they know, but which can be fulfilling in this particular way then I would say try it out. It’s about 72 minutes long, its triple piano from first note to last, with the pedal held all the way through, and there are really very few notes. I wouldn’t call it minimalistic, but Feldman, I think, succeeded in creating a kind of music that really doesn’t sound like anything else – it’s a world, or in fact, several different worlds unto itself. It really is one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever done, and that I’ve ever been exposed to and I would urge people to give it a try.

I do have one final question, which is what advice you might give to those who are just beginning to study the piano?

Don’t limit yourself to just practicing the piano, listen to music, get familiar with the repertoire. The world of piano music offers an infinite amount of possibilities as far as repertoire, or interpretive approaches – but I must add that I am not a pedagog, so I am not used to the world of people who are just starting out.

That is very good advice nonetheless, and a good note to finish with. Thank you so much for talking with us today – it has been enlightening. We very much look forward to welcoming you to Machynlleth in August.

Thank you, and likewise. I look forward to joining you for the festival.