Interview with Marc-André Hamelin
(Reprinted from old DTM, originally posted March 2009.)
While Marc-André Hamelin is a mesmerizing live performer, his passionate cult following is surely due to his immense discography. On over 50 CDs, Hamelin has documented exceptionally well-finished and truthful performances of composers ranging from the familiar to the obscure. Hamelin himself is also an important composer: His wonderful 12 Études in All the Minor Keys are published by Peters.
Hyperion records has produced the majority of Hamelin's records. There are also two Hamelin DVDs, It’s All About the Music and No Limits, and an interesting book by Robert Rimm, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight.
The great Russian piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus once remarked complacently, "I think I did not point out in vain [to the young Emil Gilels] that the hardest, purely pianistic, task is to play very long, very loud, and very fast." There is truth in that statement, but Neuhaus would be the first to agree that piano technique is far more complex than just playing fast and loud. Playing very soft is difficult. Playing counterpoint is difficult. Chords, leaps, trills, tremolos, octaves, scales -- these are all difficult, and all require a slightly different approach at every different dynamic. It is the subtle blending of the mechanism, the play of light and shade, that sets apart the super-virtuoso from those that can only play fast and loud. For many of his fans, the ultra-refinement of Hamelin's light and shade is unparalleled.
However, Hamelin is appalled when characterized solely as a super-virtuoso. Realizing the composer’s intentions is always Hamelin’s goal, not just in esoteric repertoire but in Haydn, Brahms, and Schumann.
I sat down with Hamelin for an afternoon last December. He was generous, patient and a model of integrity. Our interview begins rather obliquely and never finds a central topic; indeed, the only prepared event was a “blindfold test” of celebrated historical recordings. But I think fans of Hamelin or the repertoire discussed will enjoy this ramble. I certainly did!
Thanks to Brad Farberman for his transcription.
Ethan Iverson: What’s this on the piano?
Marc-André Hamelin: This is Saint-Saëns’ “Africa Fantasy,” which I am playing in New Jersey in about a month. It’s a very short piece, under ten minutes, but really quite difficult. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Saint-Saëns’ recording? There’s just one side, barely three minutes -- the main passages of this piece, and just for solo piano. And at 68 years of age, which I believe he was then, the virtuosity is just astonishing. It’s just barreled through -- musically, it’s worth nothing, practically. But still, the acuity of mind that he had to be able to play like that… it’s freakish.
EI: I don’t know much of Saint-Saëns’ music, except the most famous pieces.
MAH: Do you know any of the concerti?
EI: Well, the G minor, right?
EI: I’m sure the other ones are good too, but that’s the only one I’ve heard.
MAH: The fourth and fifth are really, really worth your time. The first and third a little less.
EI: It’s such a fabulous opening for the second concerto! When the orchestra comes in… that’s such a great moment.
MAH: Oh yeah. It was totally innovative at the time... just fantastic stuff.
EI: I should warn you that I almost never talk about classical music to anybody. I’m usually around jazz musicians. Today, I’m a little paranoid about how to pronounce all the names and titles -- I know how a professional like you takes pains to always say people’s names correctly.
MAH: Don’t worry about it, I’m sure you could teach me a lot of things, too.
[Pulls out the Liszt Sonata.]
One nice thing about working with this masterwork is now the facsimile of the manuscript is available. I’ve been consulting it a lot, sometimes for just one note.
EI: I thought there was an alternate ending that was flashy instead of dreamy?
MAH: I’ve never actually read it, but it’s reproduced in this book. Let’s look at it.
[Hamelin plays through a far less evocative conclusion in crossed-out manuscript.]
EI: I’m so glad Liszt changed it!
MAH: There’s no comparison.
EI: Here’s a question: You are a serious professional, someone who engages with the score on such an intimate level that you’re actually looking at a facsimile of the composer's handwriting. But I also know you have a big record collection. Do you listen to records of something like the Liszt sonata when working on it?
MAH: I try not to until I have a sufficient idea of the piece. I want to learn what the essence of it is and what I want to do with it first. Later on, I will occasionally listen to recordings, maybe just to find out what the performing tradition is with that particular work. But essentially, I don’t like to be influenced. The very first recording artists, and people who recorded these pieces for the first time, I don’t think they were imitating anybody. Who could they imitate? Maybe other performances they heard in halls or in private studios... Other performers are like me, too, trying to find their own solutions.
But I’ve actually known of at least two or three people who’ve said explicitly in interviews that they surround themselves with all existing performances to sort of try to get the best of them. To me, that’s completely backward, and shows a real lack of awareness and a lack of appreciation for the composer’s task and the composer’s creative act. It’s like “Oh, you wrote all of this, great, but I’m just going to do my own thing and ignore the finer points of what you wrote.” Some composers really agonize over small details, and I can understand how they feel.
I’m going through that kind of thing myself in a small way because of my ongoing set of twelve études. I’m finally writing the last one, and Peters is going to publish them. I’ve revised many passages; I think almost all of them have some changes and elucidations. And I’m really trying to look at them from the point of view of someone who is actually learning them. I know them already, so there’s things I take for granted. But for somebody who’s seeing them for the first time, they’re not necessarily going to know exactly what I want and how I want a passage played.
EI: What about how we have your recordings of your études?
MAH: That can help to a certain extent. The composer’s recording is another thing, of course. But anyone else’s recording is not the score.
EI: I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to your Prelude and Fugue, no. 12 of your études. I think that a recording by the composer himself of such a long and complex piece might be unprecedented. We do have some solo recordings of Busoni, Godowsky, Rachmaninoff, and others, but they are never the Olympian pieces.
MAH: Rachmaninoff does play his arrangement of the scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s really quite tough, and he seems to breeze through it like it’s nothing! But that’s not a long piece.... Well, his concerti are major works, but I suppose you’re right in solo repertoire. It’s something that I’ve never really thought about.
[We look at the score of the Prelude and Fugue.]
EI: One thing that’s distinctive about your piano writing is a thick bass. You need a really good piano for those sonorities to be heard the right way!
MAH: It helps. A good piano always helps.
EI: This is such a beautiful work.
MAH: Well, thank you. I’ve changed it somewhat. There’s about a dozen small changes in there, some of which are compositional, some of which are pianistic. I had a lack of experience when I first wrote it. I changed a few harmonies slightly. I also made a few places slightly easier. You still need large hands to play it but the unreasonable passages are eased. This monstrosity here [points at score], I’ve never been able to play that myself.
EI: On the record you play it like that, though.
MAH: Well, probably after many takes!
EI: There’s a nice moment where it sounds like all white notes, right?
MAH: Oh yeah, uh: [finds place in score]. You have perfect pitch?
EI: No, not at all. I think it’s just such a distinctive sound; you’ll know if it’s just the white notes going by. But you have perfect pitch.
MAH: Yes, which allows me to have written something like this away from the piano.
EI: It says in the book that you wrote it at a party or something.
MAH: The prelude. The fugue took me… there was one spot where I stopped: [plays]. After that I didn’t know what to do, so it took me months, so the fugue took me nine months, I remember. But there was a long pause, I dunno, three or four months in the middle. Or maybe more. And this was all written on total intuition. I mean, I didn’t know how to write a fugue. There’s a lot of irregular features in it. When you have the second subject in it: [plays]. It should be: [plays]. It just sounds better. It went according to the way it sounded.
EI: Always a good idea!
MAH: And I’ve realized that I can change almost anything to make it more playable. I mean, if I find something that really doesn’t work I can always find a way to rearrange it. Of course, it’s still very, very difficult…
EI: I don’t have experience playing classical music that’s anything like this difficult. But even in the little pieces that I play…
MAH: “Little” pieces like Ligeti etudes?
EI: Well, I only play one, and it’s nothing like this! But I do know about having just a couple of sixteenth notes in a row dwarf the whole page...
MAH: Yup, oh yeah. And they influence the rest of the thing. They make the rest of it uncomfortable as well.
EI: Well, can you play the first page for me?
MAH: I was so excited when this publication came out.
I always prepare the low A♭ with the middle pedal, because otherwise everything is blurred.
[Hamelin's recording of this piece is on The Composer-Pianists, a kind of companion to the Rimm book.]
EI: There are just beautiful harmonies in this piece. Really extraordinary. And not unconnected to jazz, I would say.
MAH: Even though I was a little bit out of my depth, I just like how these harmonies sounded and just kept it that way, you know? The chords sort of defy analysis.
EI: All the best harmony defies analysis!
MAH: Okay. I’ll buy that.
EI: One detail I wanted to check I just saw on the last page. You play the low A on the bottom of the last chord, even though the chord is straight A♭ minor. I knew it must be true!
MAH: Oh sure. Yeah, yeah.
EI: And when I saw you play Liszt's Hexameron variations in A♭, you did the same thing: you reinforced with the lowest A...
MAH: You’ve been listening rather attentively!
EI: Are more compositions on the way from you?
MAH: Well, as I said, because Peters is going to publish a set of twelve, I’m writing the last one right now. And not having an easy time with it. But most of the others are very old.
No. 1 used to be an arrangement of “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” but I’ve discarded that and put this simultaneous rendering of the three Chopin A minor études together instead. Have you ever heard of this?
EI: Yeah, I read about it and saw you play it on YouTube.
If the universe would order anything, it would order that you write that triple étude.
MAH: What do you mean?
EI: You’re the only guy that would be able to do it. Three Chopin études simultaneously!!!
MAH: Well it was written, actually, at someone else’s suggestion. Because I’d already done an arrangement of the "Black Key" étude. So he said, “You did that, why don’t you do this,” and Godowsky did it first, apparently, but that score is lost. As I thought about it more and more, the idea grew in appeal…
[picks up another score; this is of étude no. 2. Hamelin’s handwritten manuscript is very neat and clear.]
This is a completely original piece, devoid of any influence. All in horrendous double-notes. You haven’t seen the scores to any of these études?
EI: No, I haven’t seen them. I’ve heard the ones you’ve recorded, though. There’s some humorous stuff in those.
MAH: Oh yeah, I can’t do without humor.
EI: It’s pretty funny at times.
MAH: [picks up another one, no. 4] This one you wouldn’t know about. This was also written at the suggestion of a friend. Just the combination itself.
EI: Oh, it looks like the finale of the Alkan Symphony.
MAH: Yes, along with Alkan’s Opus 76, No. 3, that’s the perpetual motion étude for hands re-united. It’s not an exact contrapuntal combination by any means. Basically the thread is the perpetual motion étude, and the Symphony makes appearances; if it’s not the thematic material, at least it’s the texture.
[We break and go upstairs for lunch.]
EI: Well, what do you listen to for pleasure?
MAH: If you just look at the stack of LPs that’s in the family room which has accumulated from my purchases recently, you might get an idea. The eclecticism. One of the most exciting records that I got in the last few years is this young British guy who basically mangles existing audio. He does it mostly with pop. Almost always with pop. But one of the things he did was take all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies and overlay them, simultaneously.
EI: You know, the jazz pianist Django Bates was telling me about this very record. [I’m wrong here: this is not the record Django was raving about, but something similar, by Canadian composer John Oswald, where all the versions of the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra are played together.]
EI: I think so... He loves it. And you love it too? Ok. I clearly need to hear that and join the club.
MAH: I think it’s glorious. I’ve heard Django Bates’s work, actually. How did you two meet?
EI: Umm, I dunno, but I was actually the first person to give him a review in Down Beat. He had his first record out in seven years or something, and I thought he needed to be written about. American jazz magazines and the press and the musicians themselves can be very chauvinistic and not pay enough attention to stuff from Europe. And Django is really one of the important voices.
MAH: He’s a Brit, right?
EI: Yeah. So I think we met after that, or something. He came to a gig.
MAH: I heard one of his recordings, it was very impressive. You know who I really like, as jazz pianist, is Martial Solal. The imagination is just staggering...
In addition to that Shostakovich assemblage, I also like other “noisy” records like John Zorn’s Torture Garden. You don’t know it? Oh, I have to play you a couple of bits right now. I can’t not.
[We listen to some of the second Naked City record, which is hilarious.]
EI: You’ve got some Anthony Braxton box sets I see.
MAH: Oh god. Two-thirds of my jazz LP collection is Braxton.
EI: You’re a Braxton fan?
MAH: Oh yeah -- but I certainly haven’t listened to everything I have.
EI: I think even his biggest fans have a hard time keeping up with all of his output.
[We go back down to the piano room.]
EI: You play so much music. How long does it take you to learn a major work?
MAH: Well, it takes the time it takes, you know. You can’t put a figure to it because sometimes you think you have it and you sort of do, and then you leave it for a week and then you have to refresh it, you have to water the lawn again. So when are you finished? To me, when the notes are learned is when it starts.
EI: Right, right, of course. Well, there’s a couple of composers and certain pieces that I associate with you that I would love discussing with you in some detail. Would that be alright?
MAH: Of course. Anything.
EI: Specifically, I think it’s indisputable that you’ve done more for the culture of Godowsky and Alkan than anyone else since they were alive. You’re the pianist of our time that has brought those works forward.
MAH: Well, I don’t mean to be. I do what I believe in, and I’m trying to do as much as possible without falling into excess. But, sure, let anybody take whatever good they can from what I do. I’m certainly not looking for everything I do to have lasting consequence. Some recordings have been appreciated much more than others, and others have gotten very little attention -- especially some of the earlier ones. But, I have noticed that there’s a great deal of the listening audience who are beginning to trust me in these matters. It’s a fantastic thing to know, for me. Probably the main thing that keeps me going is feedback.
EI: You have indeed established that trust. Since it was your performance, I purchased the record of the Godowsky Piano Sonata. I’m fairly aware of and interested in the far corners of the piano repertoire, but still, even though I’d already heard a lot of other Godowsky, I didn’t know that Godowsky had written a piano sonata when your CD came out. And then the Sonata turns out to be this epic work of singular beauty.
MAH: I think the first movement is unusually strong. It’s really, really quite wonderful.
EI: It’s hard to understand: the composer himself apparently just played it once and that was it. It’s barely even been played in public.
MAH: I couldn’t say for sure.
EI: Was yours was the first complete recording of it?
MAH: No. As a matter of fact, it’s funny you should mention this: It wasn’t recorded for years and years and years and years and years, when Geoffrey Douglas Madge came out with a recording of it in 1991 or something like that, which is a bit slow, taking 70 minutes in total. (Mine is just under 50 -- granted, I don’t take the first movement repeat, which sort of shortens it by about 5 minutes.) And, after that, nothing, and then, within one year, within the space of one year, four recordings come out.
EI: Including yours?
MAH: Including mine. There’s Scherbakov on Marco Polo, who’s been doing the complete Godowsky. Bengt-Ake Lundin on Caprice, who is a Swedish pianist. Adam Aleksander on the Pro Piano label. And mine.
EI: Do you feel proprietary towards a work like that?
MAH: Quite the contrary, a large part of the reason I’m doing this is to increase awareness of what’s there. Not only for the general public, but for pianists as well. I’m only proprietary in the sense that I really want it done well if it’s going to be done at all by other people. For example, there’s a lot of Nikolai Kapustin on YouTube now, performed mostly by students.
[Hamelin has been a trail-blazing champion of Kapustin’s virtuosic, jazz-influenced music.]
But some of them are professionals and it’s quite hair-raising to me how almost nobody really knows how to swing it. You can’t perform this music just like you were playing a Mozart sonata. You’ve got to get a groove! It is the most elementary thing about performing this music, and it’s just not there. I mean, I don’t consider myself an authority, but at least I can sort of mimic what I hear from jazz pianists, and hope I was able to give this music at least some of what it needs.
EI: Kapustin is actually someone I haven’t really paid that much attention to yet. Your records In a State of Jazz and the all-Kapustin disc, they’re almost a little too close for me -- I’m not ready to enter that version of the truth…
MAH: Too what is it?
EI: Too close. The fact that it’s “jazzy” and I’m a jazz player. But of course the piano playing is obviously extraordinary on both albums. In fact, my piano teacher just loves way you play and she’s mentioned your record In a State of Jazz in particular.
MAH: Remind me who you take with again?
EI: I take with Sophia Rosoff, who studied with Abby Whiteside.
MAH: Of course, she wrote that book on the Chopin études.
EI: Back to the Godowsky sonata: Did you ever play it live?
MAH: I’d say 3 or 4 times. I played it in Tokyo. I played it in Munich. I played it in the Husum Festival, which is in Germany, that “Rarities of Piano Music” festival. There might have been one other performance, this is back in 2001, 2002, so my memory’s not too clear.
EI: What about the first time you learned about this work?
MAH: That was entirely because of my father’s own interest in Godowsky. Living in Canada, it wasn’t terribly easy to find Godowsky’s music. He found some of it in music stores in Montreal, and he made a trip to New York in 1970 and he found a great deal more: there was a music dealer who had a lot of second-hand stuff that had originally belonged to a couple of members of Godowsky's entourage. And I helped him over the years with whatever else I found.
But for some reason he’d never been able to secure a copy of the Sonata because he’d never seen it. And he finally went as far as requesting a photocopy of it from the Library of Congress. Not only that, but also a copy of the manuscript, and the sketches. He had to obtain permission from Godowsky’s son. And that’s how he found it.
Only much, much later, like in the early 1990s, was I able to get an actual copy of it. An original. And at that point, the only recording that existed was on LP, and it was only the first movement. It was played by a lady named Doris Pines, who I don't think is performing anymore. But this is the early 70s, it’s on the Genesis label. From the very, very little I knew of it, it always seemed to me like it was a work which started very interestingly and that the interest dwindled with each movement. But that was a very uninformed opinion on my part; I mean I really hadn’t delved into it.
But in 2000, I suddenly got a request. My Godowsky étude recordings had just come out, and I got a letter from Robert Lienau, the original publishers of the Sonata, asking me whether I would write a preface to it because they were going to reprint it. I procrastinated because I didn’t really know the work. So they asked a friend of mine, a musicologist, to write the preface, and that was fine. But their request did cause me to take a second look at the piece. And as I was reading the first movement, I was thinking “Yes, this is really good.” And I was reading the other movements and saying “Oh yeah, this has possibilities.” And already, the thought of a possible relationship with the piece was formed.
EI: It’s a very beautiful slow movement. I’m struck by the fact that Godowsky varies constantly. He never does it exactly the same way twice, which is obviously one of his strengths. But at the same time, I think the first four bars of the slow movement are extraordinary, and I’m a little disappointed that he always has a new harmonization of his exquisite tune whenever it comes back.
MAH: Yeah, Godowsky really strove for maximum richness at all times.
This is a different thing, but there’s one passage in the first movement which I always thought…“you can’t write this and never have heard Rachmaninoff.” I mention that in the booklet notes, but actually they made a mistake. I said it’s “near the end of the exposition,” but they say “near the end of the composition.” So it makes no sense.
[The passage in question is the tune on page 9, twenty bars before the double bar.]
But I really, really, really like that first movement. I was so involved in it that for all intents and purposes, I had it memorized. I played it for a friend and I was like "Oh my god I know this now." I hadn’t tried to memorize it but…
EI: How long did it take you to learn once you sat down to work on it?
MAH: I have no idea. And in a way, it’s not important. You can learn a piece in a week or two weeks, and it’s still gonna sound like dreck, you know? The important thing is that it sounds good. You take whatever time it takes. If it takes a year, and the result is good, then that’s fine. Your repertoire is going to be a little restricted. But at least you’ll have produced something good.
EI: But you’re someone whose repertoire is vaster than anybody else’s!
MAH: You have to understand that this is only if you’re considering my recorded work. I have not performed everything that I’ve recorded. Not by a long shot, actually.
EI: Of course you haven’t performed live a lot of what you’ve recorded. At the same time, I have a feeling you’ve played live a lot more than you’ve recorded, too.
MAH: Yeah, but there’s also things that I’ve played live even last year, or two years ago, that I couldn’t play for you at gunpoint now. They’re completely gone. It maybe wouldn’t take that much time to refresh them. To relearn them. My memory: I’m only 47, but I’m not 20, there is a difference there. It’s just as well that I don’t play everything that I’ve recorded, because… well, first of all, there’s also the consideration that there is at least a small portion of what I’ve recorded which doesn’t hold up quite as well in the concert hall and is much more presentable on record.
And here I’m thinking particularly of Percy Grainger. Which, uh, I’ve played in public maybe once. But on the recording, if you enjoy it for what it is, it’s really just fine. They’re basically settings for concert use of folk material. Very much like Bartók and what Bartók did. Although Bartók was much, much freer in how he was presenting them.
But for many people in the classical music world -- although they are for concert use -- Grainger’s arrangements come dangerously close to the world of light music. And that’s often not appreciated. They should see how difficult Grainger’s music is to play. Then maybe they’d change their tune. And in fact, it’s really quite tough at times. But it’s great when you really know it well and it comes off. It’s great under the fingers. It feels really wonderful playing it.
EI: I don’t know that many professional classical pianists. So it’s all sort of a mystery to me how it happens anyway. It’s especially mysterious to me about you about how you’ve recorded and played so much of this very difficult music, from Godowsky to Grainger to everybody else... So, if you worked on the Godowsky Sonata now, you’d have to relearn it, you think?
MAH: It wouldn’t take too much time, but you know I’ve never performed it from memory. I’d certainly spend a good week on it, trying to refresh it, and get it back to performance standard.
But I wouldn’t do it on a week’s notice. I would probably do the essential part of the work in a few days to a week. That’s just an estimation; it might take more or less if you really want me to quantify it. But I don’t like to quantify, because then people take it as gospel.
EI: Yeah, sure. But you must practice quite a bit everyday, I would imagine?
MAH: You’d be surprised how little time I spend at the piano. I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody!
But what is underestimated, and you as a performing musician certainly understand this, is that not all practice is done at the keyboard. In fact, some of my most valuable work is done away from it. Because when I take a walk, and I’m thinking about the repertoire, I’m working. You can get all kinds of revelations: details of texture, the counterpoint, the balance of form, the pace, the tempo. The shaping of the phrases. When you’re away from the instrument, you finally hear it like you want it. And then if you get that goal firmly in mind, you get back to the piano and try to apply the knowledge that’s gleaned from being away from the piano, and see how close you can get.
To me, that’s fascinating. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. In certain passages I’ve never truly attained the ideal, or I haven’t yet, maybe next year... So when young people say, “Oh, it took me two weeks to learn this one,” I want to laugh. Because that’s only just the beginning. You learned the notes, that’s all. You don’t develop an emotional relationship with the piece in that short a time. You’re just busy learning the innards of the piece; that’s all you did.
EI: Well, my wife always describes your playing as intelligent. She’s not a musician herself, but she likes classical music and she’s got good ears. She’s always said you communicate the message of the piece; you show what’s going on. Which I think is part of your true genius: we know Godowsky, Alkan and Medtner can be presented in a supremely uninteresting way, but you can present these recondite works so we can understand the message of the composer.
MAH: Whatever I choose to play, I want you to hear it in the best possible light. Otherwise there’s no point of doing it.
EI: Something like the Godowsky sonata is a perfect example. I actually haven’t heard any other recording, and it’s not like the final word will ever be spoken on any masterpiece, but I admit that I’m in no rush to hear another version, I’m so enthralled with yours.
It makes sense that what you regard as essential practice is thinking about the piece so deeply. Despite the fact that these pages are black with double notes and counterpoint, I’m truly unsurprised to hear you say the important thing is the introspection.
MAH: If it weren’t good music, I wouldn’t bother with it, you know? Some people still think that I’ll play stuff just because either it’s little-known or it’s difficult. I have a set of études by a very, very little-known French composer. Of the same period as Alkan, as it turns out. His name was Amédée Méreaux. It’s a big set of 60 études. Some of this stuff is just hair-raising and makes Alkan look like nothing.
[pulls out score]
EI: Oh, wow.
MAH: An extreme example, here.
EI: Oh, for sure. Look at that!
[There are two-fisted chords leaping in every direction.]
MAH: I mean, this is the only piece I know in which you can actually catch vertigo… and it’s in C Major, probably the worst key to do this in.
EI: [Paging through] I feel like there’s something of Henselt in the figurations?
MAH: Maybe, a lot of it is very widely spaced… I laughed my head off when I saw this… The problem with these pieces is that, musically, they are sub-zero. The melodic invention is… it’s not enough to say that it’s poor, it’s just not there. And it just goes on and on and on and on. He writes 60 pieces in an absolutely worthless idiom.
If I was interested in difficulty for difficulty’s sake, I could play this, I suppose. But this stuff just isn’t interesting.
[We look at this wall of music.]
MAH: I had to reorder this collection entirely, recently, because there are too many categories; so I consolidated a lot of things. Just in case you’re intrigued, this column here, plus those two stacks, are concerti. And those are cadenzas -- there’s a lot more in the repertoire than just these. Those three stacks are anthologies. This is the Pop/Jazz/Novelty whatever.
EI: Do you have any Lee Sims? He was a big influence on Art Tatum.
EI: I want to see those before I go...
MAH: Sims, ok. Going on through the stacks: [counting piles] One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine are two pianos and four hands. These are the facsimiles. And this is the main section, from A to Z. Regular size, and this is A to Z oversize. And here I have the really oversize scores. I used to have the main section divided into 20th century and pre-20th century. But I just consolidated them into two categories instead of four. So I had to move piles around, it took me a good couple of weeks.
EI: So exciting. Let me just take a quick look through that jazz section....
[Hamelin had an amazing collection of jazz piano music, including some James P. Johnson blues pieces that must be extraordinarily rare. Eventually, we moved upstairs, where I played him some records.]
EI: Do you ever do the blindfold test in the classical world?
MAH: No, no. One game I like, and it is surprisingly easy if you know the literature, is to play something on a table and ask the other person to identify it. But sometimes the physicality is so obvious…
EI: Well I was playing “name that tune” with my relatives at Thanksgiving. I would do TV themes and stuff. It was incredible how few notes were actually required. And these were non-musicians.
MAH: Sometimes the timbre of the first note…
EI: Yeah, exactly. For sure. Alright, well, here we go, the Marc-André Hamelin blindfold test!
MAH: [instantly] Chopin-Liszt -- this could be Hofmann or Godowsky.
EI: It’s Hofmann.
MAH: I played this only once. I played all six Chopin/Lizst transcriptions, actually.
EI: I saw you play “My Joys” as an encore.
MAH: Oh, I played that one many times.
This performance of “The Maiden’s Wish” is very tame for Hofmann.
EI: It’s very early; 1918.
MAH: He could be so insistent about bringing out inner voices later. This piece is more well-known through this arrangement than the original. Chopin’s songs are all in Polish, so it really restricts them.
EI: Well, I know Charles Rosen thinks that Liszt really improved on Chopin, that this was a case of the transcriptions being far better music than the original.
MAH: Especially in the case of “My Joys,” he made something completely new and beautiful and fresh out of it.
EI: Do you enjoy Hofmann’s playing?
MAH: With reservations. Over the years I’ve come to consider him as quite a bit more perverse than I used to. But he always commands you to listen. And there’s not a whole lot of people, I think, who really, really have that gift.
EI: For me, his records have some incredible mystical electricity. I’m always drawn in.
MAH: He does things that, today -- especially musicologically -- just wouldn’t fly. And interpretively as well. But he’s always interesting to listen to, though.
EI: Do you think there’s an argument that since he was part of the tradition, he represents some other kind of truth about the music apart from the score?
MAH: How can one speak of truth? That’s the thing. It might’ve seemed like the truth at that time, you know, but musicology, of course, was still in its infancy. And performers then didn’t have the respect for the written note that we do now. Hard to say, really.
EI: I have another Hofmann track that’s next. Which displays the controversial element you mentioned before.
MAH: I knew what this was by the key. [Mimes the thumb line that Hofmann thunders out like a trombone.] Which is not to be highlighted, actually, in the score. It’s a counterpoint, but…
EI: Yeah well, Hofmann there is being…
EI: Being Hofmann. One of many distinctive things about you is how you treat the layers of melody, counter-melody, filigree, and bass. Delicate chiaroscuro is a real trademark of your playing. In music that is highly contrapuntal, you don’t bang out the tunes over the “orchestra” all the time. The melodies are always just in high enough relief so that you can hear the tune; not at all like Hofmann’s sforzandos, a heavy attack, or “soprano versus the orchestra.”
At the 92nd Street Y I saw you play Liszt/Schubert. I was in the far back, noticing how the tunes were totally beautiful, but only enough, not too much.
MAH: I certainly don’t like to jut them out like, ‘Here they are!’ They should just stand out enough to be noticed as being on the forefront. But I won’t force-feed them to you.
Here, do you think this Godowsky transcription is better than Schubert’s original?
EI: Er... I’ve listened to this more than the original.
MAH: I knew this one before the original. A critic named Harris Goldsmith thought this was a sacrilege or a desecration, one of the two. Anybody who loves Schubert deeply would likely be sort of offended by this.
EI: You think so? I suppose. At first they would be.
MAH: There is one pianist, one very, very good pianist, who I won’t name today, who thinks that all these transcriptions are sacrilege. Purely sacrilegious.
EI: In the jazz world, that’s never the issue, you know?
MAH: Of course not. You could play “All the Things You Are” at triple tempo, which I oppose, actually. I think “All the Things You Are” should just be a ballad. It’s not just a chord pattern, or succession of chords or whatever. But I know that jazz people see this very differently. To my mind, that’s got to be one of the two or three greatest songs ever written.
EI: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
MAH: Another one I really like, the effect of it is totally mysterious, is “Laura.”
EI: Well, both of those great standards are in my active repertoire, and I’m afraid I do play “hide the melody” with them sometimes, especially on “All The Things You Are.”
MAH: Well, if I were a jazzer, I’m afraid I would explore them a lot.
EI: It’s true that “All the Things You Are” is often played too fast. Absolutely.
But you must think this is okay to do with Schubert, don’t you? Do you play any Schubert-Godowsky?
MAH: Yeah. Yeah. Schubert might not have even opposed it himself. This view of Schubert is maybe a little extreme. But there’s certainly a way to play it which will not accentuate all these inner voices, which will actually make it sound very tasteful.
EI: There are so few performances of Godowsky by those that actually knew and heard Godowsky, and this is the only one that I know that’s actually remotely flashy.
MAH: Rachmaninoff greatly admired Godowsky's Artist's Life but never played it. Or never recorded it, at least.
EI: To me, there’s some authentic feeling I get from Hofmann’s recording which I enjoy. But it’s clear that you really think the score itself holds the answers.
MAH: Well, in the case of things that happened earlier in the century, of course there’s a bit of tradition. I mean, Hofmann knew Godowsky himself, I’m sure that Godowsky must have been greatly amused by what Hofmann was doing. Godowsky held Hofmann in the highest respect, we know that. Beyond that, I can’t say.
EI: I’m sorry if I’m putting you on the spot…
MAH: No, not at all. This is fun!
EI: This is the stuff I think about all the time, so I just thought I would trouble you with some of these questions...
MAH: [instantly] I haven’t heard this in so long. Busoni playing the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 13.
Busoni was somebody who would just change as he pleased. He was a great improver. Apparently, when he played the Chopin Ballades, they were unrecognizable.
EI: Well, I think this rhapsody is cut up in part because of time limitations on 78s.
MAH: Oh, sure. There’s a whole section of it missing. He adds basses here... funny. This is the only long piece that Busoni ever recorded on disc.
EI: It’s the only one where I get a sense of what it might really have been like.
MAH: There’s a lot of piano rolls, but the LP transfers were usually bad. Also, the only parameters that got recorded in the piano rolls are the notes and the pedals. Everything else was added later by somebody who was marking up the score as the pianist was playing. Even the notes were edited… trills were evened out, mistakes were corrected…
EI: I don’t like everything Busoni did. That Schoenberg arrangement is horrible, that version of the piano piece op. 11 no. 2.
MAH: The original works perfectly well. It’s funny that Godowsky was usually accused of improving originals when he arranged, and they should’ve attacked Busoni instead. Oh listen to that: Liszt’s 13th Hungarian Conga! That’s perverse! That’s not in the score at all.
EI: But certainly, Liszt would’ve taken plenty of liberties with his own music.
MAH: I’m sure he did. But you have to write it down, because it’s going into printed form, in the definitive form. And you have to make choices, I suppose. But I know the feeling.
Sometimes the reasons I make the decisions I do is because I write music myself. I mean, that’s very important. That’s almost not done these days. Creativity is not encouraged. At least it’s not imposed. I think the reason there were a lot more composer/pianists a hundred years ago is that composition was…
EI: You had to do it.
MAH: You had to do it.
EI: It was good for piano playing back then for all the pianists to make up little pieces.
MAH: Yeah! Admittedly, some were very poor composers, but at least they were trying.
On one hand you have people like Grieg, who notated his music one way, but then said to colorful performers ignoring his markings, “Oh no, don’t change what you’re doing, I love individuality.” And then you have people like George Perle, who insists on every dot and every accent he ever wrote. He wants it just so.
EI: What about Busoni’s repeated note technique there?
MAH: His technique was pretty phenomenal, actually, from reports and also what you hear here. He wasn’t a young chicken when he did these recordings. He was in his fifties, I think.
EI: The way early piano recordings are so compressed actually adds something to the sound of the virtuosity. Still, Busoni makes it sound like there’s no key drop at all. Just liquid. Absolutely liquid on those repeated notes.
MAH: He had a way with the piano which was… it seemed like he was born to do it. His exercises, by the way, are tremendously interesting. From a compositional point of view, as much as a pianistic point of view.
EI: I’ve seen some of those, yeah. I especially like those contrapuntal studies. Those five or six advanced studies.
MAH: There are actually seven, but in some editions there are five or six. He kept adding to them. The seventh is actually for the third pedal.
EI: The set I’m thinking of ends with a Mozart transcription.
MAH: Yeah, that’s number 6. But there’s a number 7 which was added later.
MAH: Now, here’s a recording that my dad really loved.
MAH: That’s strange. Much of that seems to me a little plodding. I failed to hear a kind of a line. That’s disappointing. I never paid that close attention to this.
EI: He obviously was so uncomfortable in the recording studio.
MAH: Yeah, he always said that people shouldn’t judge him by his records.
EI: I was listening again to his version of the Chopin Nocturnes last night. Once again I was quite confused by the style.
MAH: It’s flatlined.
EI: The first person who told me to listen to that recording of Godowsky playing Morgengruss was Robert Helps, whom I knew a little bit.
MAH: Helps was a very interesting composer, and apparently he has a marvelous recording of Godowsky’s Study No. 45.
EI: Yes, exactly. In fact, I saw that very performance live.
MAH: Oh yeah? Did you like it?
EI: It was fantastic. It’s funny you bring it up: There was a discussion afterwards, and Helps actually said that he was thinking of this Morgengruss recording and trying to emulate the kind of serene calm he heard there for his own performance of Study No. 45.
MAH: Is that Simon Barere?
EI: It’s Ignaz Friedman.
MAH: That’s very strong fingers. To carry that to the end takes a lot of endurance.
EI: There’s so much fire there.
MAH: Almost too much, actually. It sounds like a turbo prop going at 140 beats per minute! It doesn’t need to be so fast. Because in a way, it’s out of character. I see a kind of serenity in that piece which I certainly don’t hear here. Of course, that’s just my view of it. Chopin didn’t really specify anything outright. I guess there is a range of visions that you can have with this piece but… I think this is excessive.
EI: It’s a stunt, for sure. It’s just considered one of the performances of that étude.
MAH: Why, because it’s fast?
EI: Well, I think because it’s got the fire. I know what you mean, though. While I love this, I don’t like Simon Barere’s version of the Schumann Toccata very much.
MAH: Unfortunately, that’s how I got to know the piece. And for a while I played the Toccata much, much, much too fast. That’s why I really don’t play it now. And frankly, it’s not the Schumann I enjoy the most.
EI: Well, your Schumann record of the G Minor Sonata, the Fantasy, and the Symphonic Études is wonderful. And some of the tempos on the Symphonic Études are among the fastest ever recorded!
MAH: They are? As I told you, I seldom listen to my peers playing that repertoire. So I couldn’t tell you.
EI: I assure you it’s true.
MAH: Rachmaninoff playing Kriesler. See, there’s a charm here that I don’t hear in Godowsky’s performance.
EI: You’re a natural Rachmaninoff player, but you don’t program him very often.
MAH: Well, I feel less the need to play him because he’s played so much. But there’s still some things that, I think, are never really heard the way they should be. I mean, it boils down sometimes to individual passages. Like in the Third Concerto, there’s some parts that I don’t think are really ever played to the fullest of their potential. Or, really, that they are always played the same wrong way. But, we’d be getting into specifics. We’d need a score for that. And a very, very, very, very, very attentive audience...
EI: I enjoy your early recording of the Second Sonata.
MAH: I could do it better now, but it seems like absolutely everybody plays the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata these days!
EI: Did you enjoy Rachmaninoff’s performance of Liebeslied then?
MAH: Yes, more than I enjoyed hearing a bit of his Chopin the other day, which I thought was very strange. Though he certainly has charm. But even with this, you know, I feel like he’s played it a lot of times. And there’s more that could be done in certain respects.
You might’ve noticed I’m not strong on hero worship.
EI: That’s great!
MAH: I’m really critical and analytical. But believe me, when I really like something, I make no secret of it.
EI: Well, I can tell how hard you’re listening. It’s so interesting to me. I love all this music, but I’ve never really played any of this stuff. It’s not my language as a performer… but you can see I’m conversant with the music as a listener. I’m just fascinated to see how you relate to it.
MAH: Oh, I love this. Rosenthal’s Papillons. Not an easy piece, because you’re always jumping around.
EI: Abby Whiteside made all of her students learn this one.
MAH: Oh, really?
EI: I haven’t worked on it myself. I’m going to get to it at some point, though.
MAH: [listening] “Da da da da” is not in the score.
EI: But in this case, would you consider the recording or the score to be the definitive?
MAH: His notation was sometimes sketchy. And as far as proper notation, a little bit sloppy, too. But he could do as he damn pleased, eh?
EI: I like that cadence at the end, G♯ major to E major. This is a wonderful example of a great pianist’s little showpiece from the days when pianists were more or less forced to compose.
MAH: He also wrote a set of variations on an original theme. He wrote a fantasy on Faust which was never published, but there’s a copy, a manuscript of it, and someone printed it. There’s a short piece called “Romance,” there’s the Chopin waltz done in thirds and two fantasies on Strauss waltzes. And a prelude which he made a piano roll of, and that’s pretty much it.
EI: I think it’s so great to be a phenomenal piano player and then have this little tricky piece, with this little thing you found one day, that you develop into your little signature number. I mean, that’s great!
Now, you’re one of the few guys that does that today.
MAH: Yeah, there’s me, there’s Steven Hough, there’s Earl Wild, there’s Frédéric Meinders, who’s a Dutch pianist living in Brazil, he does dozens of arrangements. A lot of them are very, very good. And Cyprien Katsaris is another one. Can’t think of too many more. Oh, Arcadi Volodos. although he hasn’t done that many, I think -- maybe he’s done more than he’s recorded. There are others, like Vladimir Leyetchkiss in Chicago.
EI: As a jazz player, I really respond to that attitude.
MAH: And of course, there’s no one around to tell you that your interpretation is sacrilegious. And they shouldn’t, really.
MAH: Oh, I heard this 25 years ago! That was the last time... this sounds better than I remember it, actually; I mean the sonic fidelity of it.
EI: My impression is that the Concord is a piece that you’ve played a lot in your life, and has some real significance to you. You’ve even recorded it twice.
MAH: Well, it was the first big departure that I did from anything that I had been taught so far. I still remember the date when I bought the Kirkpatrick recording, because I noted it in a diary: the 10th of June, 1975.
That was the first recording I ever bought for myself. And I was just riveted by this music. Of course, I was 13, and my critical sense was just birthing, but it was wonderful and strange, it was weird, it was enough for me. And I listened to it for a whole summer, and in September I ordered the score and got it. My father listened to the whole piece the day that I got the recording. He had been curious about it, but he was very disappointed; it’s not what he'd expected. He thought it was just a mish-mash of dissonant stuff.
The way I really found out about Ives was the October 1974 issue of Clavier Magazine, which was a special issue for the 100th anniversary of Ives’ birth. There was a whole bunch of articles, there was a small reprint of “Study No. 22” in the middle of the magazine, and also a lot of articles about the Concord sonata. I found out that it was still in print, so I ordered it at the local music store. I was just transfixed when I got it and started playing through it.
I didn’t perform it for the first time until my Master’s recital at university, which was March 1985. I’ve always had great affection for it, and great admiration. I can understand that it’s pretty tough going for somebody who’s listening to it for the first time.
EI: It was for me, actually. I like a lot of avant-garde music, but the Concord was hard.
MAH: What are the performances that you’ve heard?
EI: I really got into it by studying your recent recording, and also the contemporaneous version by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. At one point I had the Kirkpatrick on LP, but I can’t find it anymore.
MAH: Neither of his two recordings, the ’48 and the ’68, both on Columbia, are yet on CD.
EI: Do you like those recordings?
MAH: Well, I haven’t listened to them for a while. I remember the last time I listened to the ’68 one, I thought that the recorded sound was just horrible. But they are important recordings.
EI: Initially, it was hard for me to accept the Beethoven quotation. You’re got this absolutely lovely dissonant music, then the Fifth Symphony’s “bum bum bum bummm” is heard!
MAH: It’s a mixture of several different things. But if you can accept that, if you’re willing to overlook the disparity of the inspiration, it adds up to something which I believe is very convincing.
EI: Oh, for sure. With your recording in particular, I started to understand this piece.
MAH: Well, I’m a big one for the line, for the coherence. The direction. Taking the listener somewhere. Not just playing passively. That doesn’t work. That just doesn’t work.
EI: A piece like the Concord needs a firm hand on the tiller, for sure!
MAH: You have to show the listener something. You can’t just expect them to follow whatever you’re doing. You have to make sure that they’re always with you. Don’t ask me how I do that.
EI: I had to learn the “The Alcotts” myself recently. And the way I learned it was by playing along with the Ives recording.
EI: Of course, I had the score, too. But I was just so enamored of this recording, and felt it had this very spiritual quality. I then discovered the really big discrepancies between Ives’s performance and the score.
MAH: Oh yeah, he liked to improvise. There’s big discrepancies in other places, too. The first excerpt that he records from "Emerson" seems especially constricted because you feel that he wants to follow the score and you feel he has it in front of you, and he’s doing it for purposes of people who are going to play it, and it sounds very, very straightjacketed.
EI: I’m sure he played it differently every time.
MAH: Oh, yes. That’s why he wrote all those transcriptions, what he called transcriptions from "Emerson." It’s just the material branching out in other directions.
The closing fortissimo line of “The Alcotts” is one of the high points of the whole work. It’s nice where that comes in the context of the whole piece, not just as part of this movement. Somehow, it colors the preceding two movements, and prefigures some of the next.
EI: In fact, it’s maybe too much of a climax for just “The Alcotts” as a standalone, but in context of the whole sonata, it is arguably the capstone.
MAH: Well, thank you. It’s been illuminating. You’ve given me the opportunity to hear things that I haven’t heard for decades.
EI: It’s just interesting how, as a jazz player, the recording is always the first source. And in classical music, the score is the first source. I’m picking at this scab here today a little bit; perhaps too much!
MAH: It takes a lot to offend me, believe me.
EI: I’m just wondering, when you decided to play the Concord again and record it, Ives’s recording wasn’t one of your sources?
MAH: No. The source was the score.
EI: But it’s a beautiful recording, man.
MAH: This is one piece where I used to collect every single recording that I could get my hands on. I had a large majority of what was done. There have been at least two dozen recordings of it, you know that? Some of them were never reissued on CD. Like Tom Plaunt, who was a faculty member at McGill, a man named George Pappastavrou, that’s an early CRI recording. Who else…
EI: I have Aloys Kontarsky.
MAH: That was never reissued, either. A short time after I got the Kirkpatrick, I salivated over getting that recording. A friend of my father’s who lived in New York got it for me while it was still in print in the mid ’70s and sent it to me. So it was one of the first recordings of it I ever got. But it’s very German. Germans tend to treat Ives like this ferocious avant-gardist, you know. But Ives was a poet, for godsakes. He was a lover of nature.
EI: It helps that you are conversant with jazz…
EI: Fine, somewhat. Compared to most of your peers you’re extremely knowledgeable!
But, what I’m getting at is how the ragtime segments in your Ives playing sound right to me; they have the right feel. And that’s the first thing I notice in many other performers, really soggy, soggy syncopations. It’s like this gross, gooey rubato poured all over ragtime.
MAH: Even in music that really don’t have any jazz associations, like Stockhausen’s piano music: very often, people just don’t get the rhythms right. And it’s primordial. It’s absolutely essential to get the rhythms right.
EI: Thanks for mentioning Stockhausen: I don’t think you’ve recorded any twelve-tone, serial or resolutely atonal music. Have you played Schoenberg in public?
MAH: No, but I learned the Opus 25 Suite.
EI: I really think you should make a record of the Schoenberg piano music. Because there’s so many half-tints in that music that are never brought forward.
MAH: It’s not Hyperion’s first choice. I did just play the Alban Berg sonata, and I was also part of the first complete performance, anywhere, of Stockhausen’s complete piano music so far, in Montreal, 1997. I played nos. 7, 8, and 9. The ninth is the one that starts with over 200 repetitions of the same chord. It’s actually a very beautiful piece. I really should have it in my repertoire, but I’ve only played it the once.
EI: I saw Pollini play that live once.
MAH: No. 9? I see. I only thought he played the tenth one.
EI: He played several pieces in London, I think in reaction to the worldwide boos against Stockhausen post 9/11. I don’t really know that repertoire, but of course that one with the repeating F♯ minor 7 is very distinctive.
Anyway, even though there are perhaps too many recordings of the Schoenberg already, I think your voice needs to be added to the choir.
MAH: The pieces have really great potential that I feel is often unexplored. Very often I find that it’s played wrong; too angular.
EI: Exactly. But of course, Schoenberg and even Stockhausen now are dead. What living composers have intrigued you? Of course I know your Rzewski recording.
MAH: Do you know the Third Sonata of Ronn Yedidia, written in 1985? Let me get the score, and we can listen on YouTube.
[A truly 21st-century moment: sitting next to Hamelin, with the score shared on our laps, dialed into YouTube on his Mac. Watching this yourself is highly recommended.]
EI: WOW! That is a magnificent sonata!
MAH: The ending, in particular, is just beyond belief, it is so exciting.
EI: You look pretty young here: do you like this performance?
MAH: Well, it’s a little fast at times! But more people should really know this work. Apparently, it did have some kind of run at Juilliard for a while. It is from the mid-1980’s.
EI: Your performance of the first Godowsky/Chopin study at the Grammys a couple of years ago must have been the first time Godowsky was heard on American TV.
MAH: It was also the first time that Jon Stewart announced Godowsky!
That was a very difficult situation because after playing one chord you want to jump back ten feet because it’s amplified a thousand-fold. And your first reaction is to tone down your playing. But wait a minute, I’m playing for television, I don’t want to sound like milquetoast, you know? So you just have to play normally, and wish you had earplugs. You’re just unleashing this torrent of sound...
The first number in the evening was Madonna's "Music," and I sure wish I had earplugs then. I’m a traditionalist. Even if it’s like a feel-good sort of stomp or a headbanger, I want to hear the words. And there’s no hope of hearing the words at that volume. The only rock concert I ever went to was Frank Zappa, You Are What You Is. That was in ’81. It was at the Montreal Forum, and I didn’t hear a single word. It was phenomenally earsplitting.
EI: How true. I have friends who play in rock bands and they all perform with earplugs. Which is very strange: the reason you become a musician is so that you can play with earplugs? I dunno.
That Grammy performance is up on YouTube, and you can hear that the piano is quite harsh, probably because of the amplification. It doesn’t really give a proper indication of what it’s like to hear you perform the first study live.
At around the same time as this Grammy performance, I saw your recital at Alice Tully Hall: Bach-Busoni Chaconne, a Medtner set, the Schubert B♭ sonata, and Scriabin sonatas nos. 5 and 7. And then the first encore was this Godowsky study.
MAH: I remember...
EI: And after your astounding performance of the first encore, I screamed so much my throat was sore the next day. Already, before the encores, that was one of the greatest piano recitals I’ve been to. But I had just learned about those Godowsky studies...
MAH: Oh, isn’t that a shock at first?
EI: I had just gotten your record and had just spent a small fortune for the score. I was toting these epics around in my bag and listening to your recording whenever I could. Then I went to your show and you played one of them, and it was just that absolute rock and roll moment. I think I tried to stand on my seat as well as scream my head off.
EI: Oh yeah, thank you for serving one up for the Iverson.
You’re associated with these pieces, and probably have been interviewed about them a lot. But maybe, for my readers or whatever, you could recap your history with the 53 Chopin-Godowsky studies.
MAH: My father was the point of departure for quite a few things, as far as my appreciation of music was concerned, and, as I said, the reason I got interested in Godowsky so young.
EI: Here’s a question I always wanted to ask: did you play the straight Chopin études first?
MAH: It wasn’t a question of first, exactly; I worked on a lot of the Chopin études, but didn’t learn them all. But I worked on several of them, and I know all of them very well. However, the only time I really played Chopin études was in competitions rather early on. And even at that, very seldom; I think I played Liszt études a little more often.
But, among my earliest memories, as a very young child, were records that my father played around the house. There were the usual children’s records, but I remember specifically Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores (the suites) with Ormandy, and Chopin études with Alfred Cortot. So, I had the Chopin études in my ear. Around the mid-sixties my father had read about Godowsky in Harold Schonberg’s The Great Pianists, and was really quite intrigued and wanted to see some of the music. At the time, he could get almost nothing. I mean he found the Albeniz Tango transcription, and the three Strauss waltz paraphrases, but not much else. A couple of years later, that’s when he had his trip to New York, and he found a whole bunch of things in Montreal. He got everything everybody had.
Suddenly, through International Piano Library -- which is now International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland, but it started as an outfit in New York -- he learned that a reprint of the Godowsky-Chopin studies by the original publishers was in the works. So he got very, very excited. IPL took it upon themselves to buy a number of sets from the publishers and distribute it to their members at cost. My father ordered the set, and I still remember the day it arrived at home. My father and I were sitting on the edge of his bed, you know, and turning page after page, and just being bug-eyed, looking at these things. And of course, he tried his hand at playing them. He was really a very fluent amateur pianist. He had perfect pitch, which certainly helped his reading quite a bit. He never really got to much of a performing level with any of these, although he had a ball getting acquainted with Godowsky’s style. And that is sort of how I started to get some of them in my ear.
But for many, many years, most of them were a mystery to me, because I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t have the know-how to be able to read them well enough to know how they sounded. And there were so few recordings. We didn’t really have access to the Saperton recordings, for example, back then. So when the Bolet recording appeared, that was really quite a watershed, even though that was only maybe six or seven of them. Bolet’s recording certainly helped.
EI: There’s only six or seven, and they are pretty slow, too.
MAH: Yeah, they’re wonderful-sounding performances, on a pianistic level, on a singing tone level, but they were not really dynamic enough, I feel. So the discovery of them was really quite gradual.
EI: How old were you when you were first played them in public?
MAH: This was in the late ’80s. I remember at one point I set out a challenge for myself and decided to learn number 45, which is the one that Robert Helps played. And I deciphered all the rhythms, which was no mean thing…
EI: Yeah, the rhythms are very complicated.
MAH: But I had worked on the Boulez Second Sonata by then (which I never learned beyond a certain part). So, fresh out of giving myself an education in reading complicated rhythms by working on parts of the Boulez, I tackled No. 45. Boulez prepared me for Godowsky, if you want to think of it that way! Boulez really, really forced me to train myself in feeling rhythms that are completely outside the norm. Of course, Godowsky is very different. In Boulez, you really don’t have much polyphony, but you do have conflicting rhythms, and rhythms that sometimes are irrational or that are really hard to count. So, learning them, I guess, was gradual.
EI: As a teenager, were you already playing them in public? Some of them?
MAH: No, not as a teenager, more in my twenties, even more towards my late twenties, I would say. I didn’t give the final big push to learn them until the possibility of doing the recording became a reality.
EI: Some of them you were probably less attracted to.
MAH: Yeah, there’s a good bunch that I have actually have never played in public.
EI: There’s a couple of them that I don’t return to that often...
MAH: ...And you’re probably right...
EI: ...but the ones that are successful I think are some of the greatest music ever written for piano. It’s incredible that they were so ignored for so long.
MAH: Well, they were also out of print for so long, that was part of the problem. I don’t think anybody ever saw them all through the 1940’s and the 1950’s. At one point, they were all available in separate numbers. I have one or two downstairs, and my father actually had a whole bunch. I still have to move his Godowsky collection from my mother’s house to here. With my help, he accumulated a lot of the original editions. It’s probably one of the best collections of Godowsky originals ever, anywhere.
EI: No. 1 has such an incredible sound, and is a great introduction to the series. And “Ignis Fatuus” is definitely one of my favorites; nothing in this world has ever sounded like that. Some of the others could really use poetic titles like “Ignis Fatuus,” don’t you think?
MAH: That’s true!
I really like the E♭ minor left hand, No. 6. And 45 is a masterpiece. I like the waltz that he does out of Op. 25, No. 2, that’s particularly successful. And the Mazurka made out of Op. 25, No. 5 is very, very cute. And so well-wrought. And a particular favorite is Op. 25, No. 1, version three.
EI: Version three of Op. 25, No. 1 is a good example of how you play the melody very discreetly. You don’t bang out the line in the left hand; it is played just strong enough so that you can hear the melody through the tapestry. That’s very much your thing. I don’t think anyone else takes quite that level of risk.
MAH: At that tempo, you really couldn’t do much more than that without the whole thing seeming rather out of balance or out of kilter. You’ve seen, of course, how it’s printed. Those melodic notes are in normal size and everything else is in small notes. Which is really the best way of notating something like that.
EI: Your liner notes are really beautiful and extensive and are, in general, incredibly helpful.
MAH: Well, I really wanted to describe something other than pianistic features to the listener, and attract their attention over to what I thought were essential things. Because these pieces have been -- and I think will forever remain -- misunderstood. They are seen strictly as Olympian feats. Whereas they’re a great deal more than that.
EI: Sometimes the originals sound harder to play than Godowsky's amplification....
MAH: In certain cases, I believe that.
EI: ...Even though there’s no question that the amplifications are almost always harder to play. But, “why don’t I tell you what I think about this?!?” This is sort of silly, me telling you about Godowsky...
MAH: Please do! It’s nice to have other points of view.
EI: For example, let’s take the Opus 10, No. 8 amplification, where the hands are more or less reversed. When you hear the original played by a super-virtuoso, there’s a bright clarity that I think that the average ear can understand and decipher and accept: “this is virtuosity.” Whereas when you listen to the amplification, the comparative density almost overloads the ear. It’s more like a wall of sound that you can’t even tell whether it is fast or not.
Of course I can tell it’s fast, but I’m a pianist and a serious listener. But even for me, virtuosic performances of the originals offer a more direct emotional statement that’s easier to understand than the emotional world of Godowsky. This is starting to sound like I’m criticizing Godowsky, which I don’t mean to do. The emotional world is actually the real interest of his work: there are things that positively lurk in Godowsky...
MAH: Godowsky is complex enough that there are things that you can find out about it in almost every single hearing. They’re just really rich enough for that.
EI: Well, your recording is really phenomenal as is your advocacy of those works in general.
MAH: Well, it still seems to be working, because people are still discovering them and being enlightened through this recording. That’s really all I wanted. But now, some musicians -- especially some young male pianists -- are approaching the pieces for the wrong reasons. All they heard was that they were “the most difficult thing in the world,” and that’s only what appeals. But above and beyond everything, they are beautiful aesthetic statements, all of them.
EI: It’s an aesthetic that doesn’t feel very modern to me. Godowsky’s always using that word “retrospect.” There’s something about Godowsky’s world that it’s like some Shangri-La or Brigadoon. You go there for a day, and some beautiful, exotic woman is going to treat you really well for 24 hours. And then you have to go back to your real life.
MAH: The first ever complete live performance of the Chopin-Godowsky was done by Carlo Grante at the Newport festival. It was done over four 11 AM concerts. The first half of each program was Grante playing some of these études, and the other half was some piece of chamber music. (The last one actually I took part in, performing the Strauss piano quartet.) In any case, the audience at the Newport festival is always full there, but it’s because of the tourists. Busloads of tourists. And a concert is part of the package deal. So, it was a very strange mix of audience, between those people who had done a pilgrimage to hear these things live -- getting their day of Brigadoon -- and some tourists who had no idea what they were listening to.
EI: That reminds me of when I saw you perform the Alkan Symphony for Piano in a Delaware church. Those poor people, the normal congregation, they didn’t know what they were getting into...
I’m not sure I would understand Alkan if I didn’t enjoy your playing so much. That was the time I committed to renting a car and driving down to Delaware with Sarah to see you perform. Since the Alkan Symphony was on the program, I bought your record and listened to it enough to get a sense of the themes. And then when I saw you play it live, it coalesced. “Ok. I’ve got the message.” The Symphony for Piano is surely one of the great piano sonatas.
MAH: There’s a story behind that recording.
The first day I did the coupling, the Opus 15 pieces, and the second day I did the Symphony. I was in London. The day before the recording, the morning before, I put my back out for the first time in my life. I was getting dressed in the morning, I was crouching on the floor, and I was getting something from my suitcase and I did a quarter of a turn, just pivoted, and I felt a snap. Within a minute, I couldn’t even stretch my arms to put on my socks. It was absolutely the most intense pain I’d ever been in. Couldn’t find one comfortable position. Happily, I happened to be in London where there’s also a genius of an acupuncturist who I had been seeing for quite a few years. I didn’t know whether he could do anything, and I had to wait until the next morning to see him, which actually was the morning that I was starting recording. I came in hobbling, I mean barely walking, and I explained what was wrong, he said “Great, that’s my baby. I’ve done this so many times, let’s do it.” And I came out of his practice half an hour later almost walking normally. The needling that he did just commanded the muscles around the irritated nerve to just blow out and relax. I was able to record that afternoon. I guess I had to use a chair with a back, but at least I was able to play. And the next day, I recorded the Symphony.
EI: Which I think is a very passionate recording. You can really hear so much fire in your performance there.
MAH: I always give everything I’ve got in every performance or every recording. Whether that comes out I guess depends on my form.
I think the Symphony for Piano is Alkan’s strongest piece. Even though the key scheme for the four movements modulates up in fourths -- so you don’t get a return to the main key in the fourth movement -- it really doesn’t matter, because there’s a good dramatic progression between the four movements. And there are just tons of little details in the writing that are very meticulous, especially in the part writing and the articulation.
EI: There’s one thing that he does in the first movement structurally which is particularly striking. There’s that beautiful tune that’s first in E♭ major; it’s sort of like the “moment of happiness,” or something.
MAH: Ah, but the great moment is when it comes back in the recap: first he avoids putting it at the place where it should be, and then he startles you with it later, in B major.
EI: Exactly! You’re sort of waiting for it in the recapitulation, but that great moment is gone. But then, after the full recap, you hear the “moment of happiness” tune twice: You hear it on the B major level and then the C minor. And, of course, the climax note of each phrase, both in B and in C minor, is the same note: D♯/E♭. It’s a terrifying moment: we realize we are not triumphant. It’s sort of the darkest night of the soul.
MAH: He was a great architect.
EI: Then, the movement ends with the only time I’ve ever heard a suspended fourth resolving through a picardy third but then pushing through to minor.
MAH: That’s a very unique ending.
EI: It’s an incredible ending. And that sort of echoes the B major/C minor thing. Like, he just keeps on forcing us to understand that there is no hope. Do you know what I mean? There’s no hope, it’s going be C minor.
MAH: You’ve really delved into this piece. You’ve seen the score as well, obviously?
EI: I’ve looked at it, but most of my opinions about it have come from listening.
It’s unbelievable that this music is as little-known as it is.
MAH: Well, the thing about the Symphony is that it’s quite a physical exertion, especially the last two movements. Also, the ending of the first requires a lot of energy and a lot of stamina.
EI: The metronome mark for the last movement is whole note equals…
MAH: ...96, yes.
EI: What is that marking?!? No wonder people stay away.
MAH: There’s at least one person, Georges Beck, who edited a collection of Alkan’s works for a French publisher, who really thought that Alkan’s metronome markings were very ill-considered and very careless. But they’re always on the mark as far as the character of the piece is concerned.
EI: This is the sort of thing that you always say in interviews and is so unbelievable to the rest of humanity: “Well, I play it at 96 because it’s right for the piece.” You’re always so humble, saying, “It’s because I respect the composer, I mean, the piece needs to go this fast.”
MAH: Well, if I thought the metronome marking was right and I couldn’t do it, I just wouldn’t play the piece.
EI: Have you ever run into that problem?
MAH: Not necessarily because of tempo, but maybe for other reasons. I really liked Ligeti’s first etude, and I started to work on it, but it seemed like I was lacking another brain, because the bar lines start to stagger and shift. But I think it’s just that I didn’t practice long enough for the light bulb to go and for me to really get used to it. Perhaps if I had re-barred the music, I would have had a much easier time with it. But that’s one case where I just abandoned the piece. Another one was the Boulez Second Sonata, which I didn’t want to finish because the rhythmic complexities were too much for me.
EI: Did you know Ligeti?
MAH: No, but he knew of me, because he liked my Godowsky playing. And he sent me his piano concerto with a very nice letter which I still have here. He seemed to think I was the only person who could play Godowsky.
EI: He liked Godowsky?
MAH: Oh, very much. Of course you know he liked Conlon Nancarrow? Less documented is the fact that he really liked Godowsky.
EI: That is much less documented.
MAH: Well, Ligeti got my first Godowsky CD on the CBC label and wrote me some very nice things about it.
EI: Of course, the Ligeti etude and the Boulez sonata are atonal. Is there any atonal music that you ever thought that you would like to play it, but couldn’t bring enough of what was required? I know this is most ludicrous kind of fan boy question…
MAH: Generally, when it’s too difficult, then the musical returns are quite slight. When you look at something like, oh, say, the Campanella Fantasy of Liszt, which is not the étude that’s well known, but the fantasy, about 15 minutes long, and one of his very earliest things. It is just tightrope virtuosity from beginning to end for the sole purpose of tightrope virtuosity. For me, that holds no interest.
EI: How do you choose what to play where?
MAH: Well, I always say jokingly that I play what I want. Ideally one should play only what one loves, and I’m largely able to do that at this point. I’m blessed, because, especially for young people, that’s not always the case: they’re often asked to learn something. But I’m past that point. I can really concentrate on what I most believe in. The only thing, and that is really never going to stop, is that sometimes presenters have certain wishes. I would like to be able to always play the same program on tour, so that it doesn’t get so tiring changing programs all the time. That is starting to happen, but I’m not always able to do that. I just came back from Australia, and I had three appearances with orchestras, and there were three different concertos: Mendelssohn’s first, the Brahms second, and the Strauss Burlesque.
EI: Well, you must make sure you get enough time to practice on the road.
MAH: Usually, that’s arrangeable. Very often the dressing room at the arts center or whatever at the hall will be available to you, at least at certain times.
EI: I suppose you never travel and play in the same day.
MAH: No. I really try and avoid that. In my next trip to Europe, unfortunately, it’s going to happen a couple of times. But it’s within one country and the trip that day is only going to be for an hour or less. And it’s the same program. So, in that instance, I can sort of accept it.
EI: How much piano do you play before a concert? I suppose it varies.
MAH: I would say a maximum three hours. When I feel secure enough about the program, it’s usually quite a bit shorter than that, especially if the piano is good. If the piano is not good, of course, it takes longer to get yourself used to it, and doing that can be a tedious process.
EI: Have you ever changed the program because you felt the piano couldn’t take it?
MAH: I did that recently. Earlier this year I went to a new Beethoven festival in Winona, Minnesota, which is about an hour away from Minneapolis. It’s just starting, but I think it’s going to grow very nicely. Unfortunately, their instrument was not up to the task of doing the Alkan Concerto. It was a very underpowered American Steinway which had seen better days. And, to play the Alkan Concerto, the piano really has to help you. It has to provide some power of its own. You shouldn’t be expected to coax it all out yourself, to produce it all yourself. But that piano was so dead in places that if I had played that piece and tried to get the results I usually get, I would’ve hurt myself. So I changed the program in that instance, with great regret. And I hasten to add that the festival are doing everything they can to correct the situation.
EI: Since I’ve become a fan, you’ve noticeably been tackling more and more what they call “standard repertoire.” And now you’re sort of balancing playing more standard repertoire versus the less well-known items.
MAH: Ah, yeah, but be careful, though… are you talking about my recorded repertoire or recitals?
EI: Both, I guess.
MAH: Well, they’re really a different thing. In my recitals, I’ve always tried to present both sides of the coin. I mean, my recitals will often start with a Haydn sonata or a Mozart sonata.
EI: And that’s historically true? You’ve always done that?
MAH: Oh yeah, I had a recital that I carried for a long time. It was Bach Fifth French Suite, Brahms Op. 117, Liszt B-A-C-H Fantasy, and the second half was the Schubert B♭ sonata. Ugh, I could be doing that program for the rest of my life and people would still brand me a specialist of the unknown. But my presence in the recording industry, I think, overwhelms my recital work a little bit. That must be the problem. The truth is, I’ve always done standard repertoire, and I always will.
EI: Is there something that you feel like you’re missing, or that you would rather do more of? Like standard repertoire versus Alkan or…
MAH: No. I just regret that even if I lived for a very long time, I won’t be able to explore not even a tenth of what is available out there.
EI: Stravinsky. Did you ever play any Stravinsky?
MAH: Yeah, I played the Concerto for Piano and Winds. I worked on Petruschka like everybody else, although I’ve never played it and I never will.
EI: Did you like the concerto?
MAH: Yeah, I never memorized it, though. I played it twice... then the Circus Polka for myself, but never in concert.
EI: I think Serenade in A is the prettiest Stravinsky piano piece.
MAH: Generally, I’m not crazy about the piano music. I have a feeling that Stravinsky’s piano sonata, if it had another name on it like Krenek or Skalkottas, nobody would bother with it.
EI: Heresy. Absolute heresy.
MAH: Oh yeah? You like it?
EI: Yeah, for sure. There’s real melodic genius in the sonata. There’s really attractive melody. The slow movement, especially, is superb. One of Stravinsky's gifts is a kind of lyricism that I really respond to.
MAH: I won’t take that away from you. You enjoy it, you listen to it. That’s really the way it should be.
EI: In terms of program building, I was interested to see that you played that big Alkan Concerto again in New York just recently. How do pieces cycle through?
MAH: I’m not a great planner, I freely admit that. Impossible to answer, in a way. You go by feel, I suppose. You can play something for a while, and then you drop it or you leave it aside, and then you miss it, I suppose. Or maybe you feel like you should tackle it again. There could be all kinds of reasons. I got a good review of the New York performance, but again, the critic called my Alkan a feat of gymnastics or something. At some point I dearly hope people will focus on the music, not the virtuosity.
EI: You’ve recorded the Alkan Concerto twice now.
MAH: There were two reasons for re-recording. The first one is that Hyperion was going through this horrendous lawsuit. They lost it, they appealed, and they lost again. In the end, they lost close to a million pounds. And I knew that if I recorded Alkan, it would be a recording that would generate good sales.
The other reason was that the first recording that I'd made... well, I thought I could improve upon it, but the real problem was that, honestly, the sound was not very good. Which the sound engineer, who is a good friend of mine, freely admits. And a lot of people had been complaining about it, too, so…
EI: The Hyperion sound: they have special engineering or something; the label has a very distinctive sound. Of course, your piano sonority is very distinctive, too.
Actually, I like listening to the non-Hyperion records, because I hear your sound, anyway. You don't have to have Hyperion! In fact, the one that has the Chopin and Rachmaninoff B♭ minor sonatas and the Schulz-Evler “Blue Danube” on it… there’s something about your sound there which I really like. Even though -- objectively -- it's not as well-engineered as the Hyperion records. Maybe it’s just the fact that you’re not getting the same kind of help, or something.
MAH: It was done in a good hall, actually, in Montreal. But I remember the piano gave us some problems. In fact, the piano had to be worked on before we could do the filigree introduction to the “Blue Danube” thing. We did the rest of the piece, and then we went back to the beginning, but not before the voicing was redone a little bit. Because that pianissimo filigree, the repeated figure is very, very difficult to do if the action isn’t just right. But we’re talking a long time ago.
EI: Much more recently, I thought the Brahms second concerto was an excellent record.
MAH: Thank you.
EI: Are you happy with how that came out?
MAH: Oh, fundamentally, yes, but I’ve played it differently and probably better since. The fourth movement is a little fast. And parts of the rest of the pieces are a little quick -- certainly quicker than I like them now.
EI: For someone who doesn’t know your playing, that Brahms record would be a good place to start listening to and understanding your aesthetic -- if they don’t want to deal with Godowsky and Alkan right out of the gate. It’s really an excellent record. The fourth movement is taken quite fast, but it’s easily the best that I’ve heard; I’ve often felt the finale wasn’t climactic enough before.
You mentioned that you played the G major Bach French Suite. I’d love to hear you play that sometime. I’ve only heard you play Bach in transcription.
MAH: Yeah, I haven’t played a lot of Bach. That’s something that I could improve! I played the Italian Concerto a couple of times in competitions. It’s really not easy. And it’s one of Bach’s very, very best things.
EI: That’s interesting. If there’s an overplayed, boring Bach piece, it’s the Italian Concerto.
MAH: Really? Oh no, it could be so lively, so full of detail, with unexpected turns. You can do so much with the articulation, and shadings, without in the least being tasteless.
EI: You must play this. You must show me the way.
MAH: [laughter] Show me the money. I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that! Ok, well, one of many things.
EI: Another topic that I’m curious about: how do you practice? I saw Philipp technical exercises on your piano.
MAH: Yeah, I just got that. I was in Melbourne, this is no more than a week ago: I just picked it up because it seemed interesting, but I looked at maybe three pages and I thought "Okay," if they ask an Australian dollar for it, which is like 66 cents here…
EI: I was just wondering what your relationship was to technical exercises independent of repertoire.
MAH: My dad was interested in all kinds of things and bought a lot of technique books. He had a very interesting book by Rudolph Ganz which is only about 40 pages long. That’s where I first learned about symmetrical inversion. Ganz was a big proponent of that. And that is also where I found out about the exercises by Emile-Robert Blanchet, which are polyphonic in one single hand, with two voices at odds with each other. And it takes a lot of brain to practice these; it’s not just holding a diminished chord and going “doe dee doe dee doe dee doe,” it really involves your head. And after that you feel so much better playing things like Bach... or Godowsky, for that matter!
And Ganz demonstrated not only the benefits of Blanchet exercises, but also the fact that they can be, like anything else, practiced by symmetrical inversion. There’s one volume of Blanchet exercises which is only for the left hand that Ganz prints excerpts from. And he says, “Practice it this way in symmetrical inversion,” and he gives examples. And that’s what I did. That’s one of the things I did. But I practiced Chopin études like everybody else, as well.
For fun, I am uploading the first page of the impossible to find Blanchet left-hand exercises that Hamelin is discussing here. (It's the supplement to Blanchet's 64 Preludes, Opus 41.) Hamelin plays a superb rendition of Blanchet's Au jardin du vieux sérail on his essential album, Kaleidoscope.Download Blanchet-exercises-for-left-hand
In case it isn't clear, here is a brief elucidation of symmetrical inversion:Download Symmetrical_inversion
EI: What about today, are there technical exercises that you do, like is there a warm-up you have…
MAH: No. I just go to the piano and play. The warm-up I need usually is not physical, it’s mental. I have learned over the years, especially these last two years, if I decide to play an encore, at the last minute, just before going onstage, “Oh let’s play that, I haven’t played this for years” -- bad idea! There will inevitably be a hole somewhere. I have to run through it once in my mind first. I won’t need a physical warm-up unless my fingers are cold and not completely malleable because they’ve been in the cold.
EI: The hardest thing for me are trills.
MAH: They are not easy for me either, actually. I don’t have the greatest trills.
EI: How do you work on them?
MAH: I just try to make them sound good within the context of whatever I’m performing. I’ll always remember, I was a student still in Montreal, I went to hear Ciccolini playing Rachmaninoff’s Second with the Montreal Symphony. And I remember his trills. [sings] And it sounded like 144 notes a second! That impressed me somehow.
EI: I think we are going to have to do a second interview sometime, since there’s so much more I want to ask you about. For example, I meant to get around to how much I appreciate your charming occasional encores of 19th-century music that’s comparatively light, like Moskowski.
MAH: There’s a lot of it that I just don’t know. Mike Spring at Hyperion, who is really the piano expert in the company, loves early 19th-century composers above all else. You know, he’ll do stuff like that. But I’m much less into it. I might play the Caprice Espagnol and the concert waltz in E major [op. 34, no. 1] by Moskowski some day -- those are both wonderful pieces.
Speaking of waltzes, do you know the Ignaz Friedman waltz that Victor Borge used to play?
EI: Yes! That piece is just great, as is the rest of that set of six Viennese Friedman-Gärtner transcriptions. I don’t think there’s a good recording yet of that complete set -- you must do one.
MAH: Yeah, all in good time. This is the problem [gestures to his stacks of music] -- there’s so much of it!
[To finish the interview, Marc played me a superlative rendition of the famous Chopin D♭ Nocturne (also featured on his latest recording). Cathy Fuller caught the moment below. The stacks of music are on the right; an alcove dedicated to Medtner is on the left.]