Whether to enhance orchestral seasons or recital series, presenters seeking dazzle tend to engage pianists or fiddlers. (Time was when sopranos or tenors were considered, too, but times have changed.) In a sense, it’s almost foolproof – get a big name player for big, flashy work, and voilà! Sometimes the event almost sells itself. There are scads of pianists on the circuit, but smallish clusters of ’em tend to revisit certain regions repeatedly, to the exclusion of many of their colleagues. You’d think this wouldn’t happen in a democracy like ours, but favoritism clearly plays a role in the selection process.

Take Marc-André Hamelin, for example. The distinguished French-Canadian is in his absolute prime and at the height of his interpretive powers. It’s hard to imagine his playing any better, or with greater insight, than he is now. He’s a thinking person’s pianist who can dazzle with the best of the technicians but whose thoughtful consideration of everything he undertakes sets him apart from the pack. So it was astonishing to realize that his recent Duke Performances recital, given in Page Auditorium on April 19, was his first appearance in Durham in a decade. His return was therefore cause for celebration among piano aficionados, of which a gracious plenty were on hand for the occasion. One suspects Hamelin would have drawn a crowd even if the repertoire hadn’t been announced in advance. But on this occasion – as is almost invariably the case where Hamelin is involved – the program was as rare and exceptional as the performances themselves. Put all that together and you’ve got a bona fide winner of an evening of great music, for sure!

The recital began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109, a “late” sonata that offers an exceptional range of emotion. Hamelin essayed it with breathtaking skill, infusing every measure with energy and spirit while maintaining a refreshing “long view,” too, so the details – of which there were many – never came close to overtaking the progress of the work. Hamelin’s reading was crystal clear and technically precise. This was refined and subtle playing, wondrously shaded and colored, and the pianissimi – throughout the concert – were astonishing. Page isn’t always kind to pianists, but Hamelin broke the code with marvelous results.

The second work was almost certainly new to 99% of the audience – or more. Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978) was Bulgaria’s greatest composer, the first to make “nationalism” work in his native land (as Glinka and Dvorák did in theirs). Fans of great fiddlers of the past perhaps know an Oistrakh recording of one of Vladigerov’s violin compositions, and opera enthusiasts may be familiar with his great “national” drama, Tsar Kaloyan (available in MP3 format on a CD-Rom issued by Mike Richter). Vladigerov’s Sonatina Concertante, Op. 28, is a virtuoso showpiece with considerable charm and some depth, drenched in folk (or folk-like) melodies. It shows that its creator knew his way around the keyboard, for sure. And Hamelin made a wonderful and persuasive case for the Sonatina that we’re hoping will result in further explorations of this fine composer’s music in the West. For now, the Sonatina Concertante, which takes about 17 minutes to perform, seems to be a major find – a distinctive score with nonetheless recognizable influences from French impressionism and from Scriabin, Szymanowski, and Bartók, among others.

Following the intermission, Hamlein performed Books I and III from Albeniz’s Ibéria. It a sense, it was a brave bit of programming, but the artist’s new recording of the complete set of twelve pieces has recently come out and is garnering great praise, and I suppose it’s time for artists who are not part of the Spanish tradition to undertake this music. (Ibéria was for many years considered the property of Alicia de Larroccha, but times are changing….) It was good, too, to hear such a substantial slice of one of the literature’s greatest and most demanding collections. And Hamelin played the six numbers like his very life depended on the outcome. One might call it “total immersion” and make a big deal of Hamelin’s involvement in the music – but this is how he approaches everything he plays, so the impression, overall, was breathtaking and captivating – but not unexpected, given the performer and the music itself. These piano pieces were orchestrated by Enrique Fernandez Arbos and Carlos Surinach, and the symphonic versions are unquestionably brilliant – so much so that many listeners may prefer them. But before opting for the “big brush” editions, listeners owe it to themselves to experience the magic Hamelin is working in this music. For information on his new Hyperion CD, see http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/details/67476.asp.

The encore was one of Debussy’s preludes, which made a nice tieback to the impressionistic overtones of the Vladigerov Sonatina.

Hamelin may have been “away” from the Tar Heel State for a while, but he’s making up for lost time next season with appearances at Wake Forest University on October 5 and in Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater on May 15. We’ll provide details in due course.