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Music Review

From out of the piano wilderness, an overdue BSO debut

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin performs at Tanglewood Sunday with the BSO, conducted by Jens Georg Bachmann. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin performs at Tanglewood Sunday with the BSO, conducted by Jens Georg Bachmann. (hilary scott)

LENOX -- Most big orchestras feel they need their glittery star soloists to add luster and sell tickets, yet the star system can also muddle the pipelines and keep certain talent waiting far too long. The Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin is a highly impressive musician who should have been debuting with major orchestras years ago, but his career appears to be heating up only recently, at age 45 . Sunday afternoon he made his BSO debut, filling in on short notice for an injured Leon Fleisher.

To be fair, there is a more complicated story behind Hamelin's late arrival to center-stage. He has spent years blazing trails and lighting fires in the remote regions of the piano wilderness, indulging his passion for obscure and fiendishly difficult late 19th- and early 20th-century music. He has recorded armfuls of this virtuoso repertoire for the British label Hyperion, which apparently had the wisdom to give Hamelin carte blanche .

It would be a pleasure to report that Hamelin is gaining his newfound exposure without compromising his distinctive tastes, and that his BSO debut was made with a concerto by Ferruccio Busoni, or Anton Rubinstein, or Franz Xaver Scharwenka. But alas, this was an all-Beethoven weekend at Tanglewood, so Hamelin performed the "Emperor" Concerto, in keeping with the original program.

His performance was fleet, lucid , and coolly probing, dazzling when necessary but not excessively flashy. He seemed very grateful to be there, and for a brief tantalizing moment it looked as though he might play an encore -- bring on the Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji! -- but it was not to be. The substitution was a special case , but let's hope that Hamelin is reengaged, and that next time the BSO takes the bold step of encouraging him to bring a piece that showcases his individuality rather than shoehorning him into the mold of a more conventional pianist. The concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart will be happy for the week off, and they'll sound fresher when they return.

The weekend also brought a second welcome debut: that of the British violinist Daniel Hope, who played Beethoven's Triple Concerto on Saturday night with his colleagues from the Beaux Arts Trio, and returned on Sunday with Beethoven's Romance No. 2. The latter work presents unusual challenges for a soloist -- it overflows with gorgeous melody yet it contains not one bar of the pyrotechnics that typically bring a crowd to its feet. But Hope is a complete violinist who does not depend on knuckle-busting display. He possesses a wise, sweet, and mellow tone, and he used his lyrical gifts on Sunday to maximum effect, unspooling long spacious lines and high-cresting phrases. It was playing of uncommon eloquence.

Bookending these two solo appearances, Jens Georg Bachmann, one of the BSO's assistant conductors, led the orchestra in zesty accounts of the Leonore Overture No. 3 (with Thomas Rolfs's offstage trumpet calls sailing in dramatically from a rear corner of the shed) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Bachmann's podium gestures suggest a good admixture of economy and passion. The Seventh did not possess the heft or gravitas, a certain space around the notes, that more monumental readings convey, but it telegraphed a clear visceral excitement. And on a sun-drenched afternoon in the Berkshires, with a large crowd fanned out across the lawn, that in itself was plenty.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Boston Symphony Orchestra

Jens Georg Bachmann, conductor

At: Tanglewood, Sunday afternoon