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Suite à l’ancienne (Suite in the old style) (2020)

April 24, 2022 – Marc-André Hamlein, piano

For biographic background about pianist and composer Marc-André Hamelin please see the artist’s biographical profile in this program.

Just like C.P.E. Bach in this afternoon’s first piece, Marc-André Hamelin turns a retrospective gaze on the Baroque suite form, though through a much later lens. A consummate piano virtuoso who has composed throughout his illustrious career, Hamelin wrote his Suite à l’ancienne as a commission rather than as a solo vehicle for himself. He first encountered pianist Rachel Naomi Kudo in 2017 when he judged the 15th Van Cliburn International Competition. He was impressed by her performance of his Toccata on L’homme armé, which he had composed as the competition’s compulsory piece.

For her part, Kudo was enamored of the piece and felt she had finally found the composer she wanted to commission with her funding from the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award. Said Hamelin, “I was very happy to accept. I knew I would be in good hands.” Kudo gave the premiere of the Suite à l’ancienne on February 21, 2021, in a “Virtual Special Event for The Gilmore” (Gilmore International Piano Festival). Hamelin himself will perform the piece in May 2022 at the Berliner Klavierfestival and agreed to play it one month earlier on this Parlance Chamber Concert at the request of Michael Parloff.

Kudo had asked for something inspired by J. S. Bach, which turned Hamelin’s thoughts to the Baroque suite. “My suite is directly derived from the Baroque models of the various works in the genre by Bach and Handel in that the general forms are very similar. Beyond that, even though the language remains completely tonal (in A major/minor in this case), the harmony is much more involved, more chromatic.” Further, the work brims with textures and pianistic effects built on an intimate knowledge of masterful piano works ranging from Chopin and Ravel to Godowsky and Skryabin.

Many Baroque suites opened with an introductory movement that was meant to be improvised or written out so as to sound like an improvisation. The stunning Préambule that opens the six-movement Suite à l’ancienne indeed sounds improvisatory with its careful notation tempered by the instruction to be played “liberamente” (freely). The brief movement commands attention with its rapid, chromatically inflected figurations that range the entire keyboard at double or triple forte throughout, ending with a grand A major chord.

The Allemande presents a delightful contrast, meant to be played sweetly, charmingly, without agitation. In the binary form of most suite movements (two sections, each repeated), the music swings along easily, tunefully, despite its intricate chordal texture.

In the Courante, literally “running” in French, Hamelin combines the Baroque dance type in fast triple meter with the light and playful character of a nineteenth-century scherzo, also in fast triple meter. Kudo calls this movement with its fast running sixteenth notes and leaping accompaniment “fiendishly difficult.” The right and left hands switch roles briefly at the start of the second section, which intensifies—without getting louder!—when both hands join in the fleeting sixteenth notes. The opening returns, then alters course to end in an impish disappearing act.

Rather than using the typical “sarabande” designation of many Baroque suites, Hamelin titles his slow movement “Air avec agréments” (Air with ornaments). Its sound is magical, Impressionistic—shimmering in the upper register of the piano, delicately sprinkled with ornamental flourishes. A brief transition to the lower register leads directly into the next movement.

This is the point in a Baroque suite where composers would often insert their choice of dances—gavotte, minuet, bourrée, among others—usually in pairs with a return to the first dance after the second. Hamelin does just that with his Gavotte—more of a graceful bustle than a courtly dance—which envelops the Musette. In earlier centuries the musette was a dance-like pastoral piece named for the small French bagpipe and imitating its sound with underlying drones and simple stepwise melodies. Hamelin cleverly makes his “drones” sound in open fifths, but they actively oscillate while ranging the left half of the keyboard. By holding everything in the pedal, including the right hand’s melodic lines, Hamelin creates a mesmerizing effect before the Gavotte returns.

The Gigue makes a dazzling—and humorous—conclusion to the Suite à l’ancienne, fully in keeping with the spirit of the Baroque gigue but blasted into the twenty-first century. At one point, in a particularly chromatic passage, Hamelin writes: “Whoa, this floor’s too slippery—let’s go jig somewhere else.” The music rights itself, as if to start the section again, but continues on its roller-coaster course to a return of the jaunty opening just before the triumphant finish.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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