James Carson and Lyndon Rochelle at Rockwood Music Hall

Marc-Andre Hamelin at 92nd Street Y

by Angela Sutton

Photo credit: Fran Kaufman

Marc Andre-Hamelin and his disciplined fingers came to 92nd Street Y on Wednesday night for a big program featuring music of the 20th century's opening decades. Mr. Hamelin has made a career performing highly polished versions of technically challenging pieces, and this program was a prime example.

Unlike Horowitz's willful stoicism or Lang Lang's cavorting, however, Mr. Hamelin's approach to the keyboard is no fuss and undramatic—coolly intellectual, in spite of all the notes. Although sometimes disconcerting, this attitude allows the fireworks to speak for themselves as musical texture, rather than serving as a vehicle for the performer's ego.

Wednesday's program opened with a thunderous reading, in transcription, of Bach's G minor Organ Fantasia and Fugue. Busoni's Sonatina Seconda, a bleak and strange work of dark impressionism, followed before the first half closed with a group of Debussy works—Images Book I and L'Isle Joyeuse. The standout here, for me, was the "Mouvement" from Images, which Mr. Hamelin rendered with glittering rhythmic drive.

The second half featured plenty of Rachmaninoff, including a wonderful performance of the Prelude Op. 32, No. 12, as well as the Sonata No. 2, Op. 36, in its revised 1931 version. Aside from its prodigious technical difficulties, the sonata's dense textures make it a challenge for listeners as well, and although Mr. Hamelin mastered the technical problems while similarly conveying the overall architecture of the work, its lack of distinct themes still wore out the ear.

Mr. Hamelin started the second half, however, with levity, in his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, a gumbo of famous piano music that the madcap Earl Wild could have cooked up. His encores were equally lighthearted: a romanticized reading of Mozart's "easy" C Major Piano Sonata, and a marvelously cracked version of Chopin's "Minute" waltz that went straight off the rails in its second half.

Why not have a good laugh at a recital? And who would have thought that when Hamelin, the technician's technician, revealed his musical personality, it would resemble Chuck Jones?