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Marc-Andre Hamelin positively buoyant in recital at Symphony Center

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Everything about pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin’s concert Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center was refreshing.

The sparkling watery imagery that bubbled up in some of the repertoire featuring sonatas by Alban Berg and Rachmaninoff and pieces by Faure, Ravel, Debussy and Hamelin himself fit nicely with Symphony Center’s ongoing Rivers Festival theme. And the dappled, rippling sound of Hamelin’s piano was a happy reminder of the perfect spring weather outside, bringing to mind the hordes of children romping around Crown Fountain in Millennium Park a block from Symphony Center. Finally, the sizable audience gave Hamelin their undivided attention. Perhaps spring actually has banished Chicago audiences’ chronic coughs and colds.

The Canadian pianist is an awe-inspiring virtuoso. In the Scarbo movement of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit,” his glistening arpeggios and running chords were playful but powerful. Storming across the keyboard like smoothly rolling thunder, then stammering with unexpected starts and stops, they gave us a vivid picture of a not-always benign nocturnal gremlin. At the start of his own, very witty Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Hamelin wrapped Paganini’s sprightly but faintly dark melody in softly dissonant chords. As the variations piled up, he all but hammered the theme into submission with the famous four opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and snatches of overwrought romanticism by Liszt. The final variation was a cheerful helter-skelter mash-up, an exhilarating combination of technical tricks, high spirits and carefully crafted composition.

But Hamelin is not a pianistic showman. We don’t see flailing limbs or rhapsodic gazes heavenward. What he offers is a rare ability to integrate technical virtuosity into a thoughtful, intensely intimate performance of the music at hand. In the Ondine movement of “Gaspard de la nuit,’’ we heard not only the crystalline ripples of the water sprite’s evanescent world but also gusts of chilly wind, evoked by hushed, shuddering passages that were more felt than heard.

The mood was lighter though no less colorful in the recital’s two Faure pieces: the airy Impromptu No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 31, and the suavely seductive Barcarolle No. 3 in G-Flat Major, Op. 42. There was a lovely blend of serenity and weight in the drifting chords of Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” from Book 1 of “Images” for Piano. In Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau,” the atmosphere was more youthful, full of gleaming ripples and snatches of exotic melody.

Hamelin’s sound was crisp and powerful in Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, with dissonances clashing energetically against the lyrical flow but never disrupting it. He displayed that same kind of seamless control in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2, never allowing its massive bursts of fireworks to overwhelm the melodic lines.

Encores were Rachmaninoff’s dulcet Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12, and Hamelin’s own comic send-up: “Chopin’s Minute Waltz, in Seconds.”

Wynne Delacoma, the Sun-Times’ classical music critic from 1991 to 2006, is a free-lance contributor.

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