CHOPIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3; 2 Nocturnes; Berceuse; Barcarolle – Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano – Hyperion CDA67706, 76:40 *****:

Jean-Francois Millet’s Pre-Impressionist “Reclining Female Nude”, her face hidden in eternal mystery as she is painted entirely from the rear, shimmers gauzily on the booklet cover. The painting suggests a more ephemeral and ruminative – even mysterious – Chopin than the CD actually contains. Debussy claimed Chopin as his great precursor and influence while he was composing his revolutionary piano music. One hears that future influence manifested in the Berceuse in D flat major Op. 57, the two Op. 27 Nocturnes and the beautiful Barcarolle in F sharp minor Op. 60, four of the works collected on this brilliant recording.

Marc-Andre Hamelin has made his great reputation as a pianist on the strength of his spectacular technique and his knack for choosing unusual and difficult repertoire that few have the courage to tackle. His performances of the Alkan Concerto for Solo Piano and the music of Leopold Godowsky have nearly achieved legendary status. Hamelin’s blistering technique is always guided by his profound insight into the score, his deep musical intelligence and an almost preternatural intuition as to dynamics and stylistic rectitude. His performances are usually powerful, elegant and inventive. Yet in his performances of the Haydn Sonatas he revels in the composer’s impish wit and melodic subtlety while subsuming his own strength and power.

Some find Hamelin a mere technician, a sort of android with strong supple fingers. Listening to his performances of some of Chopin’s most beautiful works as presented on this CD may help to dispel that mistaken notion. Hamelin turns on the nightlight, emphasizing the music’s poetry as Chopin’s almost elfin lyricism is the engine behind his music’s unearthly beauty. Hamelin inhabits this music utterly, revealing a purely aesthetic ear that is not usually attributed to him,

He allows each piece to unfold organically while shaping its broad outlines with a seductive lyrical poetry. Hamelin unfurls Chopin’s elegant filigreed lines with ease while never losing the music’s inner logic. For his performances of the majestic Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 Hamelin emphasizes the music’s occasionally perplexing narrative, unleashing his trademark explosive technique when the score calls for it. The famous Marche Funebre of the Sonata No. 2 in B flat major Op. 35 is deeply sorrowful and a fierce portrait of tragic inevitability as it unfolds with an almost atavistic ceremonial rage.

These are world class Chopin performances that admirers of Hamelin will adore. His detractors may discover another side to this sui generis artist. One thing is known for certain: Hamelin is a pianist whom it is impossible to ignore! Historically there have been very few musicians that one could say that about.

Hyperion’s intimate recorded sound is splendid with a warmth and richness that breathes life into the piano. Although this recording is not too closely miked, the piano is presented as if it were in a small recital hall and the audience merely a few rows back. This makes for an ideal presentation of this often dream-like music.

– – Mike Birman