Why is Hamelin such a god of technique?

Posted by: AldenH

Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 04:50 PM

Even compared to some of the greatest pianists of the last hundred years, his technique still seems absolutely stunning. What in the world did he DO at the piano as a young man to build what is probably the most flawless technique in the world?!

Chopin ├ętudes 8 hours a day from the age of 9, perhaps? ha
Posted by: beet31425

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 04:54 PM

(Even if one thinks Hamelin's technique isn't the *very* best in the world, but merely *one* of the very best, your question still stands.)

But what makes you think it's answerable? I'm sure his childhood discipline was commendable, but you'll never find a real answer there. His body and brain just is the way it is, I think.

-J
Posted by: AldenH

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 05:00 PM

You're right; I guess I meant it as more of a rhetorical question, expressing admiration for someone who has achieved something rather spectacular.
Posted by: pianoloverus

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 06:12 PM

I don't think it's completely clear how good Hamelin's technique is compared to other pianists with gigantic technique. Much of his reputation as one of the greatest technicians is IMO based on his performing a lot of extremely difficult but rarely performed works(Chopin-Godowsky Etudes, his own Etudes, lots of Alkan, etc.)Whether some of the big virtuosos could play these pieces if they thought they were worthwhile is not so clear, for me at least.

Is his technique clearly better than pianists like Kissin, Volodos, Argerich, Horowitz, Gilels, Rachmaninov, Cziffra, Pollini, Katsaris, etc.?
Posted by: debrucey

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 06:14 PM

Just watch him play. How fluid and precise his hands move even in the most difficult of passages. There's definitely something very special about his technique, even if you don't consider it the 'best'.
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 08:04 PM

Originally Posted By: pianoloverus
Whether some of the big virtuosos could play these pieces if they thought they were worthwhile is not so clear, for me at least.

Not for me either. I certainly admire Hamelin, though his Liszt Norma Fantasy sounds as if he had never heard the opera. (Big Bellini person I am, with due respect Hamelin only sees it as a technical challenge.) I suppose Lewenthal spoiled me, but that recording has never made it to CD. (Why not?)

Rudolf Serkin recorded the most devilishly difficult works of Reger and Richard Strauss, and reportedly he had an interest in Alkan, but just didn't have the time beyond his normal repertoire. That I can understand.

Hamelin certainly gave us a modern Henselt F minor with incredible technical address (Ponti and Lewenthal were frustrating), but IMO I don't think it the last word on this taxing concerto. We know that, amongst other pianists, Busoni played it. We also know that Arrau had an interest in it (Arthur Rubinstein, no!), and I suppose if a pianist of the caliber of Argerich, Horowitz, Richter (etc) had ever shown interest, then with due respect, I cannot see that Hamelin would ever exceed them.

But who knows. Didn't Rachmaninov play the Henselt as a student? WOW, wouldn't that be the stuff of fantasy? The slow movement of the Henselt was most likely the inspiration for the C# minor prelude, not hard to miss if you look at the scores.
Posted by: Damon

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 08:08 PM

I recently purchased his latest Liszt CD and along with some video I've seen, if I may swipe a line from argerichfan, he plays with an insolent ease I've never seen before. How he plays so effortlessly, fast, and accurate is a puzzlement to be sure. Part of the reason might also explain something I don't like about his playing. For me, too much sounds like a bunch of little pieces that he perfected but didn't join together all that well. That being said, I still have no trouble including him in the list PL made above, but I still prefer Horowitz and Katsaris. (I'd take Cziffra out, though shocked )
Posted by: DameMyra

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 10:58 PM

I use to think of Hamelin as only a technician till I finally saw him perform live last year. He opened with the Berg Sonata and followed with the Liszt Sonata. I didn't even think about technique; the music making was so extraordinary. Of course, his encore, Haydn's Fantasia in C major, was the most amazing display of technique! Super fast and every single note clear and perfect, with so much character.
Posted by: treelogger

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 11:37 PM

Originally Posted By: debrucey
Just watch him play.

To be honest, I'd rather listen to him play. Unlike violas, trombones, oboes, or whatever instrument you happen to hate today, pianos should be heard, not seen.

In all seriousness: I don't care what amazing motions he does with his hand. If he played the piano with his toes and his nose, that would be just dandy with me too. Is Harpo Marx one of the world's greatest pianists, just because he sometimes plays with his hands upside down? Obviously not.

To even think about the question "god of technique", we need to answer what the purpose of technique is. I'll try my hand at it, feel free to disagree. First off, it enables you to play things that are otherwise impossible (where impossible means: there is no way you can get all the notes played in reasonable time without so many mistakes that it's no longer the same piece). I don't have the technique required for Liszt transcendental etudes, or for Schumann symphonic variations ... I can't see how to press all the required buttons with my 10 fingers (and with current set of 9 working fingers, it's flat out impossible). But this definition of technique is not very useful; most professionals and scores of amateurs can get through all of the piano repertoire.

Next try: technique is when you can play the piece at reasonable speed, and without too many wrong notes. In this sense, I can get through the Schumann Toccata, or all Chopin etudes. But this is not enough to make music; any MIDI controller can do this off of digitized sheet music.

So let's try definition I like: technique is when you are free to make music, the way you like to, and the required act of pressing the buttons doesn't restrict you. If you take a score, and are free to interpret (render) it the way you really feel. To put it differently, the listener will notice that at all times, your only concern is the music, and the mechanical aspects have become irrelevant. This is what makes the playing look effortless (a very important word!) to the listener: they can now focus on what they hear, instead of watching you strain. After all, playing the piano is not an athletic contest. While the 100 meter dash is all about doing so fast (trying to get there in under 10s), music is not that way.

To summarize, technique is a zen thing: You need it (lots and lots of it), so you can free yourself from it.

And to be honest, while Hamelin is a fine pianist, his playing doesn't seem effortless to me. He programs harder and harder stuff, and you worry about him crashing to the ground any moment, and are amazed that he even makes it.

I personally prefer pianists who try to focus on the music. And in the category of technique, I can think of three that stand out: Argerich, Horovitz, and Cziffra. Argerich's most amazing recordings (to me) are the Schumann Toccata and the live Rach3. In both, she simply does what she wants (and I don't happen to agree with all of it in the Toccata), but only because she wants to, not because her technique is restricting her. The one piece where these two pianists stand out is the coda of the Tchaikovsky concerto: After the orchestral run-up, the piano starts with a thundering scale in double octaves. Lots of pianists have to slow way down for that scale. Lots of others do it fast, but it is just banging, without shape or form. Argerich and Horovitz (and darn few others) do it differently: fast and loud, but there is phrasing and rubato, the line breathes at all the right places, it builds to a climax. In short, they are playing music, not struggling with the notes.

And Cziffra is amazing in his Liszt. You don't have to like his interpretation, but it is clear that he does what he wants (including showing off) with amazing facility, and making it all sound easy. In the showing-off category is also Horovitz' Stars and Stripes transcription: Very hard, but he pulls it off as if it were easy.

The absolute contrast is the Lang Lang version of Liszt 2nd rhapsody you find on youtube. He adds lots and lots of notes, and then plays it as fast and as loud as he can. You can clearly sense how he is continuously pushing the edge of what his hands and arms can do. This is not music, this is athleticism (and in very bad taste and not particularly interesting sounding). A train wreck. Note: I've heard from a friend who recently did chamber music with Lang Lang that he has completely outgrown this juvenile testosterone-fueled phase, and now makes fine music.
Posted by: MetalMan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 11:45 PM

I've heard Hamelin twice myself, and although I am a big fan (I have all of his Hyperion recordings) I will say that hearing him play Rachmaninov's 2nd with Lockhart left me conflicted. I've read and watched several interviews with him; he always credits his father as being a big influence, mentioning that he heard Alkan as commonly in his formative years as Chopin might have been heard everywhere else.

In terms of comparisons, just read Boris Berezovsky's interview regarding his recording of the Chopin-Godowsky etudes, and listen to his performances. You'll hear Chopin, Godowsky and Berezovsky, whereas with Hamelin, you only hear Chopin and Godowsky. Compare Hamelin's:

Medtner - Milne, Tozer
Scriabin - Kissin, Volodos, Melnikov
Kapustin - Osborne
Alkan - Gibbons, Lewenthal
Liszt - soon many to chose from...

On the super virtuoso side of things, he's "competing" on every front. IMHO, one of his hallmark traits is that he doesn't put himself above the composer, so when you hear a recording technically perfect and fairly neutral in terms of interpretation, it may well be Hamelin. This works great in really congested stuff like what I've listed above where there is a need to hear unknown works straight up (Liszt being on the edge), but personally, as much as I love Hamelin's playing and puritanical artistry, I find myself reaching for Kissin or Volodos for the more mainstream virtuoso fare because I do want to hear the artist's personality. I really love Demidenko's playing precisely for this reason, although Pogorelich goes a little too far (Gaspard aside, of course!).
Posted by: MetalMan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/12/11 11:49 PM

This crashing you mention was exactly my fear for him when he was performing Rachmaninov's 2nd. Not the right reason to be at the edge of your seat....
Posted by: wr

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 03:57 AM

I think that Hamelin's technique and ease of execution is often his own main focus, and so, naturally enough, that's what people perceive in his playing. My guess is that he approaches most music as if it's an etude with little musical substance, and then, once he's totally mastered playing the notes that way, he adds a bit of generic expression and calls it a day. Sometimes he does more, but it is inconsistent, and sometimes what he does is unbelievably inept, stylistically. But on the other hand, I've really enjoyed some of his playing. Strange. It's spooky how he can play the notes, apply a bare minimum of musical expression, and somehow manage to totally drain a piece of life. Sometimes the effect on me is that he literally makes my mind wander, even if I try hard to stay focused on the music. How does he do that?

I think a lot of Hamelin's musical persona and focus on technical ease comes from his growing up with a father who was a good amateur pianist who apparently was very enamored with highly virtuosic fodder and various obscurities, and had a big collection of it. Hamelin, in a way, can be seen as an embodiment of his dad's musical interests.
Posted by: Andromaque

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:05 AM

To me, and I do not mean it pejoratively, Hamelin is a sort of an idiot savant. A little OCD too. Listening to him talk about his obsession with scores and listening to his playing gives me a perception of someone who developed an intense facility with "notes" akin to that exhibited by computing wizards with numbers or really good chess players or rubikon cube solvers with their game. Or even fantasy divine dancers who have extra limbs. I cannot ignore or dismiss his enormous talent but it leaves me with the same emotion elicited by a superior circus act: amazing and short-living. Kind of like the original shock and awe concept.
Posted by: debrucey

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:25 AM

"Unlike violas, trombones, oboes, or whatever instrument you happen to hate today, pianos should be heard, not seen."

Wtf?
Posted by: debrucey

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:30 AM

A lot of nonsense is spoken about just what exactly is technique. I've never understood why. It's really not as philosophical an issue as people think.
Posted by: thalbergmad

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:33 AM

Originally Posted By: argerichfan


Hamelin certainly gave us a modern Henselt F minor with incredible technical address (Ponti and Lewenthal were frustrating), but IMO I don't think it the last word on this taxing concerto. We know that, amongst other pianists, Busoni played it. We also know that Arrau had an interest in it (Arthur Rubinstein, no!), and I suppose if a pianist of the caliber of Argerich, Horowitz, Richter (etc) had ever shown interest, then with due respect, I cannot see that Hamelin would ever exceed them.

But who knows. Didn't Rachmaninov play the Henselt as a student? WOW, wouldn't that be the stuff of fantasy? The slow movement of the Henselt was most likely the inspiration for the C# minor prelude, not hard to miss if you look at the scores.



Clara Schumann also played the Henselt Concerto and indeed it is mouthwatering to think of Rachmaninov playing it. I agree with you that we are far from the last word on this great work and none of the existing recordings including Hamelin's are what I would call satisfactory.

I am now intensely bored with difficult this and technique that, as what one does with what one has is far more important. No doubt Hamelin has the fingers, but his Scharwenka and Rubinstein Concerto disk was uneventful and his Reger Telemann variations were in my opinion inferior to Bolet. Saying that, I found his recording of the far easier Haydn Sonatas to be sublime and charming and they often get a hearing after a naff day at work.

I admire the man but do not always care for his playing. Perhaps he should play more Sorabji and composers of the same ilk, where the music is that [censored] that nobody can tell if it is any good.

Thal
Posted by: debrucey

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:40 AM

"Perhaps he should play more Sorabji and composers of the same ilk, where the music is that [censored] that nobody can tell if it is any good."

*facepalm*
Posted by: stores

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:59 AM

Originally Posted By: debrucey
A lot of nonsense is spoken about just what exactly is technique. I've never understood why. It's really not as philosophical an issue as people think.


Technique isn't at all a philosophical issue.
Posted by: MetalMan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 10:08 AM

But what about his Medtner? Is there another cycle (or even part of a cycle) you'd take in preference? Hamelin's, besides having his trademark technical perfection, is remarkable. Some may disagree, but this is deep, not easily accessible music that takes so much more than just technique.

Back to technique, though. One of these days, I will go through his discography to see how quickly he cranks out this hellish repertoire; I doubt very much that anyone else has brought so many notes to technical perfection so quickly. Is he even 50 years old yet? Do the math; he's probably only recorded a quarter of his repertoire. On the surface, I would say that he has the strongest technique of any of the super-virtuosi playing today, not just in terms of fingers, but also uptake. I'm afraid it doesn't answer how he got it, but I'm just glad he did!
Posted by: Sequentia

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 12:53 PM

Originally Posted By: thalbergmad
Perhaps he should play more Sorabji and composers of the same ilk, where the music is that [censored] that nobody can tell if it is any good.


That is debatable, but there is no doubt that we can tell how informed and relevant your opinion on "composers like Sorabji" (there are none, in any case) is.
Posted by: wr

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 04:59 PM

Originally Posted By: MetalMan
But what about his Medtner? Is there another cycle (or even part of a cycle) you'd take in preference? Hamelin's, besides having his trademark technical perfection, is remarkable. Some may disagree, but this is deep, not easily accessible music that takes so much more than just technique.



With a very few exceptions, I prefer everyone else's Medtner to Hamelin's slick recording. One of the interesting things about Hamelin and Medtner is that Hamelin does try to be scrupulous about most score directions asking for objective things to happen (he's not so good, though, at the ones that are more subjective). And Medtner's writing is stuffed of all kinds of details (to the point of being overwritten, perhaps), which, if followed, will produce an impression of having done an interpretation. But it doesn't substitute for the performer finding real musical meaning behind the notes and score indications, which Hamelin seems not to do.

Quote:


Back to technique, though. One of these days, I will go through his discography to see how quickly he cranks out this hellish repertoire; I doubt very much that anyone else has brought so many notes to technical perfection so quickly. Is he even 50 years old yet? Do the math; he's probably only recorded a quarter of his repertoire. On the surface, I would say that he has the strongest technique of any of the super-virtuosi playing today, not just in terms of fingers, but also uptake. I'm afraid it doesn't answer how he got it, but I'm just glad he did!


Yes, he's 50. And he says he does not learn music particularly quickly. I think a good deal of the music on his recordings is not memorized. And remember, that "perfection" you hear is sometimes the product of the recording studio - I've heard him miss more than a few notes in live performance.

I don't see any real basis for saying he has the strongest technique around, other than than his choice of repertoire (and what, pray tell, is a "super-virtuoso"?). There's a point at which pianists can pretty much play anything they choose to play, and he's certainly not the only pianist at that level. The effect of ease his playing gives off is, to me, an esthetic choice he's made that most other pianists don't choose to make, for artistic reasons. There's a tradition for it - Godowsky, Bolet, Wild are exemplars - but many musicians do not find it artistically viable.
Posted by: stores

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 05:00 PM

Originally Posted By: Sequentia
"composers like Sorabji" (there are none, in any case)


And thank God for that.
Posted by: Sequentia

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 05:12 PM

Originally Posted By: stores
And thank God for that.


Why?
Posted by: MetalMan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 05:17 PM

Alright then, point me to someone who performs the same works by Medtner more convincingly; you'll probably say Petri or similar and we'll have to disagree. And Hamelin saying he does not learn music particularly quickly is like Volodos saying that the stuff he plays is not difficult. Both are probably more humble than any of us might be with chops like that, so we take their comments at face value, lol.
Posted by: MetalMan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 05:17 PM

+1
Posted by: Orange Soda King

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 05:19 PM

Originally Posted By: stores
Originally Posted By: Sequentia
"composers like Sorabji" (there are none, in any case)


And thank God for that.


There are some smaller works that are quite enjoyable for just about anybody. Although, I can understand how it can be very difficult to stomach the larger, denser works.
Posted by: wr

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 05:53 PM

Originally Posted By: MetalMan
Alright then, point me to someone who performs the same works by Medtner more convincingly; you'll probably say Petri or similar and we'll have to disagree. And Hamelin saying he does not learn music particularly quickly is like Volodos saying that the stuff he plays is not difficult. Both are probably more humble than any of us might be with chops like that, so we take their comments at face value, lol.


Since you have already disagreed with any examples in advance, I see little need to offer any.
Posted by: didyougethathing

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 06:01 PM

I'm a fan of Hamelin, and he's obviously supremely talented. However, as others have noted, he often overlooks the music in favor of the "notes." A perfect example is his Iberia: Technically perfect, but no character.

However, I will defend his Medtner.
Posted by: debrucey

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 06:15 PM

I will defend most of his recordings. I disagree completely with everyone who says he is musically lacking. Such criticism is always levied against people who are able to play things technically perfectly.
Posted by: thalbergmad

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 06:27 PM

Originally Posted By: debrucey
Such criticism is always levied against people who are able to play things technically perfectly.


Not always.There are plenty of pianists who can play technically perfectly and not be musically boring.

Thal
Posted by: pianoloverus

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 06:39 PM

Originally Posted By: thalbergmad
Originally Posted By: debrucey
Such criticism is always levied against people who are able to play things technically perfectly.


Not always.There are plenty of pianists who can play technically perfectly and not be musically boring.

Thal
Of course there are some exceptions, but I think deburcey's statement is often true.
Posted by: wr

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 06:57 PM

Originally Posted By: pianoloverus
Originally Posted By: thalbergmad
Originally Posted By: debrucey
Such criticism is always levied against people who are able to play things technically perfectly.


Not always.There are plenty of pianists who can play technically perfectly and not be musically boring.

Thal
Of course there are some exceptions, but I think deburcey's statement is often true.


If it is true, and that's a very big "if" for such a sweeping generalization, it may be because there is good reason for it.
Posted by: debrucey

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 07:48 PM

And in my opinion Hamelin is one of them.
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 08:00 PM

Originally Posted By: pianoloverus
Originally Posted By: thalbergmad
Originally Posted By: debrucey
Such criticism is always levied against people who are able to play things technically perfectly.


Not always.There are plenty of pianists who can play technically perfectly and not be musically boring.

Thal
Of course there are some exceptions, but I think debrucey's statement is often true.

I don't disagree with that. But so far I have not connected with Medtner's music, and this could possibly be the fault of Hamelin's recordings. Those are the only ones I have really listened to.

As stated earlier, I admire Hamelin's technical address (it is really quite amazing!), but now I am wondering if after all the fault does not lie with Medtner. His music has a fascination on the printed page, but those notes do not come to life in Hamelin's recordings.

Just curious, I'm willing to keep trying.
Posted by: MetalMan

Re: Why is Hamelin such a god of technique? - 11/13/11 08:12 PM

Pick up the re-released Milne set on Brilliant Classics; it's cheap and definitely different than Hamelin's set.