Marc-André Hamelin likes to explore the niches of the solo piano repertoire

Sure, Marc-André Hamelin plays works by nearly all of the expected composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin. But the esteemed Canadian pianist also loves to venture into the side streets and forgotten alleys of the piano repertoire, performing little-known music by Georgy Catoire, Leo Ornstein, Nikolai Roslavets and Kaikhosru Sorabji. 

Hamelin, acclaimed for his almost unmatched technique, will highlight both these sides of his musical tastes when he returns Feb. 26 to the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series for a recital that begins with Paul Dukas’ monumental Sonata in E-flat Major (1899-1900). While the French composer is well known for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a symphonic poem made famous in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940), his sonata is hardly mainstream repertoire.

Speaking from his home outside Boston, where he serves on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, Hamelin called the Dukas sonata one of the most “glorious productions” of the late Romantic era. “I’m especially attracted to that — people like Franck and Reger and Busoni,” he said. “When tonal harmony started to break up, that’s one of the richest periods in the entire musical history,” he said.

He first played the work, which lasts around 45 minutes, in the early 1990s, but this season is the first time he has made it a part of a regular recital program.

“Despite its length, it should be heard more often,” Hamelin said. “It’s a piece that has a lot of deep feeling and wonderful musical ideas. It owes a lot to [César] Franck’s musical language, even thought it was very much influenced in many ways by Beethoven. In fact, there are at least two references in there to Beethoven’s late sonatas, one of them to the Hammerklavier  — which he will perform obscurity on the second half of his SCP recital.

Hamelin’s super-charged musical curiosity dates back to his early days a piano student in Montreal. He began lessons when he was 5, and five or six years later, his father subscribed to the Piano Quarterly (later Piano & Keyboard). In that publication, there were always reviews of new music, including some challenging avant-garde scores. “Since I was always naturally curious, these held a great deal of fascination,” he said. “I was always attracted to the wonderful, strange and weird, and that just grew and grew.”

When he got a little older, he used whatever pocket money he had to buy budget recordings by modernist composers like Pierre Boulez, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Gradually, his focus shifted to the past, especially the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, when Romanticism was giving way to new sound worlds that would reshape classical music. He has championed, for example, the music of the relatively little-known pianist-composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan, who was friends with Liszt and Chopin. Hamelin spotlighted him on a 2007 album that featured the composer’s Symphony for Solo Piano, a large-scale work published in 1857. 

“It’s a piece that has a lot of deep feeling and wonderful musical ideas. It owes a lot to Franck’s musical language, even thought it was very much influenced in many ways by Beethoven.” — Marc-André Hamelin on Dukas’ Sonata in E-flat Major

Another example of Hamelin’s unusually wide-ranging repertory are his two latest recordings on the prestigious Hyperion label that highlight two very different musical aesthetics. One two-disc set, released in January 2022, focuses on the sonatas and rondos by C.P.E. Bach, a composer who is hardly unknown but also doesn’t get a lot of attention outside the early-music realm. The other, which came out five months later, features the complete set of William Bolcolm’s Rags, 27 ragtime-inspired works written between 1967 and 2015. “I love both,” Hamelin said. “What can I say?”   

C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788) is the second surviving son of J.S. Bach and served as a bridge between the Baroque and Classical periods. Hamelin played one of the composer’s trios once and was aware of his symphonies, but was “thunderstruck” when he heard one of his solo piano works on the radio and set about exploring them. Hamelin is friends with Bolcom, who won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and became “beguiled” with the Rags, starting in the 1970s. “Each and every one has its own merit and its own qualities,” Hamelin said. He thought it would be useful for listeners to have a recording that brought all the Rags together in one place. “It was a way to bring more awareness to that wonderful segment of the literature,” he said. While there is a such compilation on Albany Records, it is incomplete because Bolcom wrote several more of the pieces since that release. 

Writing in Gramophone magazine, music critic Jeremy Nicholas had nothing but praise for Hamelin’s collection of Bolcom’s Rags: “[His] razor-sharp rhythmic acuity and precise accentuation in tandem with his customary nonchalant dexterity would, on their own, be sufficient for the success of this release, but there are other things: a sophisticated palette, a deep tenderness, a mischievous sense of humor and the chameleon’s ability to convince you that he is not a classical pianist, but first and foremost, a successor to James P. Johnson. There is more. I doubt if there’s another pianist on the planet who, after giving us a revelatory two-disc survey of C.P.E. Bach, could so adroitly turn his attention to late 20th-century ragtime. The man is a miracle.”

Giving Hamelin’s repertoire an even greater range are his own 30 or so compositions, including his most recent, a piano quintet that he debuted in August with the Dover Quartet at the La Jolla Music Society. He began writing as a piano student, taking advantage of the manuscript paper that he found around the house. “I started scribbling nonsense, and of course, you can’t call them anything like compositional efforts, but at least, the impulse was there,” he said. 

He wrote a prelude and fugue in 1985-86 that he calls his first “presentable” composition, and it later became part of his 12 Études in All the Minor Keys, which he finished in 2009. In 2016, he was commissioned by the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition to write the Toccata on L’homme armé, which is based on a song from the French Renaissance. It was performed by 30 of the contestants at the 2017 edition of the piano contest. Unlike, say, Sergei Rachmaninov, who devoted himself equally to playing and composing, Hamelin is primarily a pianist first and composer second. “I do compose,” he said, “because I feel like I have to something to say, but I wouldn’t say that I’m part of the actual [compositional] establishment.”

Although Hamelin’s often eclectic repertory is now seen as one of his important assets, it proved to be a liability with skittish presenters when he was starting out. Despite winning the 1985 Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition, which emphasized 20th-century music, it was not until the 1990s when he was in his 30s that his career really began to take off. Hamelin’s attributes his eventual on-stage success to his prolific recordings, which now number more than 70 and have earned him 11 Grammy Award nominations. They were pivotal in helping audiences and presenters get to know him.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamelin was typically performing 75-80 concerts a year, and he is finally returning to those numbers. His appearance in Symphony Center is part of an intense series of six cross-country concerts in 10 days, concluding with back-to-back performances with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York.  “That’s going to feel very good,” he said.