There is a sense of Last Rites about Marc-André Hamelin’s account of Schubert’s ultimate Piano Sonata. An expansive tempo for the opening movement, and a few intended if slight hesitations, suggest a journey about to be undertaken with some trepidation. Spirits are raised though, the tempo increases, yet with the arrival of the lead-back bars (the only place the ominous bass trill is heard fortissimo), a similar presentation of the exposition might be heard as the musical equivalent of Groundhog Day. That said, Hamelin is in complete control of direction and his is a compelling and thought-provoking view of this large-scale work, leisurely but not slack, nor as distended as, say, Richter (who adds a couple of minutes to Hamelin’s close-on twenty-three), and there are some wonderfully expressive flexibilities and dynamic contrasts to be heard – from bittersweet resignation to powerful stoicism – once through the twice-played exposition.
The first movement is marked Molto moderato, and it could be said that Hamelin is spot-on. The second one is Andante sostenuto. Here Hamelin might be considered too unhurried, a solemn and desolate traversal of the music, yet it is certainly deeply-felt and affecting, penetrating beyond the notes to Schubert’s state of mind, and – rightly in my view – Hamelin makes little increase in tempo for the march-like central section, but he does introduce new tone-colours (and a formidable crescendo) to his majestic approach. By further contrast the Scherzo is fleet and sparkling, Hamelin’s touch elfin-like, and the staccatos of the Trio are delightfully assorted, sometimes pugnacious. With the Finale, an Allegro that will end emphatically, Hamelin finds an agreeable degree of whimsy. From him, what we get in what is more or less Schubert’s concluding statement is a conflict of vigour and regret; the closing measures might be resolute, but the composer couldn’t fight fate, he would soon be dead aged thirty-one.
As for the second set of Impromptus, they are full of vivid music-making, the opening F-minor reminding of Schubert the song-composer setting a story and a poet’s sentiments to music, here without words of course, but indicative of many moods that tell a tale. By the way, for all that Hamelin is perhaps thought of firstly as a super-virtuoso, the master of finger-breaking repertoire, at no point during this recital does this aspect of his playing come to mind; his technique may be luxurious but it serves only his insightful and individual musicianship, realistically recorded, and he goes on to give shapely/sensitive and deft/charged readings of the remaining three pieces. This release has strong claims on the Schubert collector.