It is not common for musicians to reinvent themselves while their careers are in full swing, but on the occasions when that does occur, the results can be fascinating. The thought crossed my mind in late July when Todd Levy and the Miró Quartet performed Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet at a concert of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. In the spring of 1891, the fifty-eight-year-old Johannes Brahms, who had proclaimed himself retired from composition, traveled from his home in Vienna to the German town of Meiningen to attend concerts featuring his music. He was so smitten by the playing of the thirty-five-year-old Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinetist there, that his creative juices started flowing again. Before the year was out, Brahms completed his Clarinet Trio (Op. 114) and then his Clarinet Quintet (Op. 115), and those ushered in the further irreplaceable masterpieces of his six final years: his four late collections of piano movements (Op. 116-119), his Two Clarinet Sonatas (Op. 120, also for Mühlfeld), his Four Serious Songs (Op. 121), and his Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ (Op. 122).
None of these pieces would likely have come into being without the jumpstart Mühlfeld happened to have provided, but here’s the kicker: Mühlfeld was only a clarinetist because he reinvented himself. By training, he was a violinist. He had joined the Meiningen Orchestra in 1873 as a second violinist and was promoted to the first violin section the following year. Wagner recruited him to play as an orchestral violinist for the inaugural season of the Bayreuth Festival in 1876, in which was introduced Der Ring des Nibelungen, and only after that did Mühlfeld turn his attention seriously toward the clarinet. If he had not reevaluated his musical aspirations and moved from the Meiningen Orchestra’s string section to its wind contingent, Brahms’ catalog would probably have ended before those final nine opus numbers. Change can lead to good things.
History does not offer up many shifts as complete and unanticipated as Mühlfeld’s, although there are numerous examples of instrumentalists who become conductors or who find their true calling in composition. Singers are more likely to change their focus than instrumentalists are. Mezzo-sopranos become sopranos, tenors turn into baritones. Even without relocating from one pitch category to another, most singers move from singing one type of role to another within their general vocal category as their careers progress. Voices are evolving organisms, after all. This season at Santa Fe Opera, for example, we have tenor Alek Shrader starring in the upper-range tenore di grazia role of Tonio in La fille du régiment, but it sounds like he is already embarked on a technical transition that will land him in rather heavier tenor roles. And consider this summer’s Salome, soprano Alex Penda, who has been spending recent weeks letting loose a very sizable voice that has no trouble blazing through the density of a big Straussian orchestra. It is surprising to recall that she previously gained prominence through her work in the daintier field of historically informed performance, that she spent the first decade of her career singing mostly 18th-century music, and that as recently as September 2011 she recorded the part of Arminda in Mozart’s La finta giardiniera with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Anyone who has caught both La finta giardiniera and Salome at Santa Fe Opera this summer will understand that a singer would not move from the one part to the other without undergoing serious rethinking of her musical aspirations and concomitant vocal retooling.
Pianist Marc-André Hamelin would seem to be going through a related process of self-reinvention. After he won the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition in 1985, he set up shop in a sparsely inhabited niche by programming and recording repertoire we might call ultra-virtuosic. Much of it was by composers who were also technically high-flying pianists, such as Leopold Godowsky, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Nikolai Medtner, Josef Hofmann,and Felix Blumenfeld. By 2002, he was a focus of a book, Robert Rimm’s The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and The Eight, which cast him as the modern-day counterpart to a select group of golden-age pianistic sensualists — Alkan, Busoni, Samuil Feinberg, Godowsky, Medtner, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Scriabin, and Kaikhosru Sorabji. It is interesting to look through the more recent years of Hamelin’s voluminous recorded catalog, which is mostly released on the Hyperion label. In 2005, we find a collection of three Schumann cycles, including Papillons and Carnaval — not easy music, to be sure, but not out of the park in its basic physical demands. In 2006, we find Brahms’ three piano quartets plus one of the late solo sets (Op. 117); in 2007, a two-CD set of Haydn piano sonatas, with sequel sets following in 2009 and 2012; in 2009, the Schumann Piano Quintet with the Tákacs Quartet; a Chopin disc in 2009; three Haydn piano concertos in 2013; a two-CD set of Mozart piano sonatas this past April.
Such repertoire is more generally attainable on a technical level than the finger-twisting material with which Hamelin staked his stage cred. We should note that he continues to perform and record repertoire that exists largely to dazzle, and that his earlier in-concert recitals often did include a good deal of standard repertoire along with the barnstorming. Still, one senses an evolution in his musical aspirations, and at this point he gives the impression of being more deeply invested in classics whose intellectual content is not upstaged by whiz-bang. No matter where his heart may have lain all along, he has seemed intent on recalibrating his image. We have seen it even here in Santa Fe, where this past March he appeared at the Lensic Performing Arts Center with Les Violons du Roy playing not Liszt or Rachmaninoff, but rather two pieces that practically define Classical balance, Haydn’s D-major Concerto and Mozart’s Concert-Rondo in A major (K. 386).
On July 30, his noontime solo recital at the St. Francis Auditorium (presented by the Chamber Music Festival) was anchored by an entrancing rendition of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major (D. 960), that composer’s last contribution to the genre. It was very much an interpretation, a personalized take on a familiar standard. The most obvious surprises involved his approach to rhythm. He played the piece in a ruminative fashion, often rounding off phrases by slowing down into a pause before continuing. This might easily have made a long piece seem too, too protracted, but in his hands it had the opposite effect; one almost felt the piece was being created as we sat there, that its nooks and crannies were being excavated for the first time, that moments of repose were essential stops in this flow of inspiration. Hamelin’s rhythmic liberties seemed integral rather than willfully audacious. It was, in fact, an unusually slow performance, especially in the opening two movements. The first movement, for example, usually runs about 20 minutes; here it clocked in at 23. Remarkable, too, was Hamelin’s tone. Even when playing his most flamboyant repertoire, he has never been drawn to banging. In Schubert, the lightness of his touch eerily evoked the timbre of Schubert-era pianos, even though he was playing a massive modern Steinway. His performance seemed ancient and modern both at once. The Andante sostenuto became a play of color refracted through his pianistic prism. He did not draw away from outburst when it seemed necessary, strongly emphasizing the tolling of some repeated notes in the Trio of the third movement and truly erupting at one point in the finale, but on the whole this was a meditative, unusually immediate performance that emanated from a quiet place.
An unfamiliar piece preceded the sonata: Yehudi Wyner’s Toward the Center, from 1988. Here Hamelin’s hyper-clarity yielded sparkling shards of pianistic hues. The piece had a generally atonal flavor, but at its center a melody enriched by appoggiaturas made allusions to the ardent expressions of an earlier time, rather like slow-motion Chopin. At the end of its 17 minutes, clustery chords floated off into the cosmos.
The pianist returned to the same stage on Aug. 2 and 3 — I heard the former — in a concert he shared with the Johannes String Quartet (also presented by the Chamber Music Festival). The foursome opened the concert with a bristling reading of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, the last of his six, written in the aftermath of his sister’s sudden death and only months before his own. The Johannes tilts its balance toward the first violin, which in this piece added to the intensity of the drama. The group showed inherent mastery of the fundamentals we expect of a good quartet; its rhythmic pointedness honed the urgent second movement to a fine edge, and one could only admire the elegantly matched octaves the viola and cello whispered in perfect ensemble in that movement’s Trio section. The third movement, an Adagio, is characteristically described as a “song without words,” but that fails to suggest the poignancy it can convey in this context. The group plumbed its tender melancholy without giving in to saccharine possibilities, notwithstanding a few generous touches of expressive portamento.
Hamelin then joined forces with them for a jaw-dropping performance of Leo Ornstein’s Piano Quintet — or Quintette, as the composer preferred to spell it. The work is rarely encountered, and you can see why. Apart from requiring a very high order of virtuosity from all five players, it is a behemoth of a piece, its three movements extending through some 40 jam-packed minutes. Ornstein, who was born in either 1892 or 1893 (as with many other Eastern European immigrants to America at that time, records are sketchy), achieved eminence as a raving modernist during the 1910s, crashing about the keyboard and composing works with titles like Wild Men’s Dance (Danse sauvage) and Suicide in an Airplane. He largely withdrew from the concert stage in the 1920s, devoting himself instead to teaching piano in Philadelphia and composing pieces that, on the whole, grew more conservative than his early brashness might have foretold. He lived until 2002, when he died at the age of one hundred and eight or one hundred and nine. Nearly all his com-positions date from before the Second World War, but he did write a few pieces in his later years, apparently completing his last — his Piano Sonata No. 8 — in 1990.
The Piano Quintet, from 1927, is a ferocious, madcap piece overall, wending its way through a smorgasbord of Bartók’s percussiveness, Ravel’s sweeping sensuality, Scriabin’s perfervid passion, Milhaud’s jungle exoticism, Bloch’s Hebraic cantillation, Prokofiev’s machine-age momentum, and even a lyric sweep that suggests Korngold’s future Hollywood scores. The piece might prove laughable in a performance that was less committed than this one. Here, Hamelin’s wrists of steel came in very useful; he made Ornstein’s terrifying piano writing sound downright artistic, even in scintillating passages that seemed left over from Balakirev’s daunting Islamey. The string players matched him point for point in energy, enthusiasm, and unflappability. A cornucopia of material spilled forth with outrageous abundance, and listeners were left with no choice but to go with the flow of this rhapsodic effusion and just try to keep up with it all. ◀