Marc-André Hamelin is among the very few pianists whose hands can seem to work their way effortlessly through the Gordian Knots of the repertory, and can conjure up tsunamis of forte passages without the slightest spreading of pitch. He has made his name by playing and recording such knuckle-busters as the Godowsky Studies in Chopin’s Études and resuscitating complex late Romantic and neglected Twentieth Century works. He is as concerned with melody as he is with keyboard pyrotechnics. All these qualities were given ample scope for a packed Brendel Auditorium at Wake Forest University for the second Secrest Series Concert

Late Beethoven and a Bulgarian rarity reprised the program I heard April 19, 2006 as part of Duke Performances and reviewed by CVNC Executive Editor John W. Lambert. Liszt transcriptions leavened the program ending with Villa-Lobos. A subtext was how composers from non-Western cultures synthesize that musical heritage into the dominant Eurocentric style.

Pianist Anton Kuerti’s fine program note for Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 aptly suggests the work’s concentrated nature by comparing each of its three movements to “a haiku, beautifully formed, not wasting a word, yet making a very significant point.” The first movement superbly integrates the composer’s “formal and improvisatory styles.” The riotous Prestissimo distills sonata form to a “stark minimum.” A concluding and masterful set of six variations explore an aspect of the theme in a unique way while contrasting with the remaining variants. All three movements are unified by the interval of the third. Hamelin produced a full tone across a wide dynamic range with crisp attacks, cleanly articulated fast passages, all subordinated to an over-all view.

Keyboard sparks flew aplenty over the course of Hamelin’s performance of two Liszt transcriptions from operas, Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a Paraphrase from Verdi’s Ernani while poetic melody radiated from Liszt’s setting of Chopin’s Chant Polonaise No. 5, “My Joys.”

WFU English Professor Scott Klein’s pre-concert commentary and playing of relevant melodies and complex rhythmic episodes on a piano was the ideal entrée to the two different ways Bulgarian composer Pantcho Vladigerov (1899-1978) and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) integrated their non-Western European musical backgrounds into their works. Every recent source that I checked spelled Vladigerov’s name “Poncho,” except for the Secrest program notes section by Eric Bromberger.

Vladigerov was born in Switzerland, spent much of his life in Germany, but was more influenced by French Impressionists welding aspects of their harmonies with this Bulgarian’s love of weaving really, really long melodies. Klein gave as an example a melody that ran on for four pages! Vladigerov’s Sonatina Concertante, Op. 28 (1934), is the composer’s only long solo piano work. Odd Oriental rhythms, intervals, meters, and harmonies are blended to make a multi-cultural “borscht.” Hamelin revealed the full kaleidoscope of colors, reveling in the juxtaposition of contrasting meters and intervals. Every hearing of Op. 28 has opened up more facets of this fascinating work. The work’s title is ironical.

Villa-Lobos thumbed his nose at blending Brazilian music into a Western European mold. He relished above all the motoric rhythms of his Latin American and native musics. His “Rudepoema” (“Savage Poem”) was composed in 1921-26 and was dedicated to Arthur Rubenstein. While Rubenstein now has a “grandfatherly” aura, in his early career he was quite a firebrand and promoted new composers such as De Falla and Villa-Lobos whom he discovered playing the piano for silent movies. He promoted the Brazilian’s works and encouraged him to continue his studies in Paris.

Villa-Lobos called the music of “Rudepoema” “rude, brutal, and barbaric.” According to Sonia Rubinsky’s program note, the composer incorporated multiple Brazilian sources “asymmetrical… melodic cells of Ameridian song; exciting African (poly-rhythms) and metrical displacements; and such urban… dances such as tango, maxixe, (and) samba.” A surging string figure from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is quoted several times. Hamelin’s performance was a tour de force as he switched instantly from one complex rhythmic pattern to another or soared to a well-filled forte from a hushed passage. Every color of the musical prism was exposed.

Hamelin was really “cookin'” throughout this concert and must have been really happy in his groove since he treated the enthusiastic audience to three encores. Eyes stared on in disbelief as ears were fooled by the pianist’s sleight of hand in his first encore, one of Hamelin’s own songs, a lullaby, transcribed for the left hand. He created the impression of a sustained bass line below a treble melody. A Debussy piece, Feux d’artifice, which abounded in glissandos and arpeggios came next followed by another Book II Prélude, La puerta del vino, with a Spanish rhythmic flavor.