There is no shortage of pianists with pristine techniques today. There is even a decent supply of polished pianists who possess the rarer attribute of musicality. But Marc-Andre Hamelin still stands out from the pack.
Critics have been known to sound more like fan club presidents when describing Hamelin performances, tossing off adjectives like "legendary," "fearless" and "electrifying," or even giving him the title "piano superhero."
Baltimore will get a chance to sample Hamelin's artistry when he makes his Shriver Hall Concert Series debut on Sunday. The pianist brings with him a program rich in challenges and adventures, balancing the music of Bach, Debussy and Rachmaninoff with less familiar fare.
"I never try to have some obscure theme in my programming," the Montreal-born Hamelin, 51, said. "I start with what I particularly want to play, and then build something balanced around it."
One of the pieces Hamelin wants to play here is Ferruccio Busoni's rarely heard and harmonically daring Sonatina No. 2 from 1912.
"It is one of his most forward-looking pieces," the pianist said. "After a hundred years, it still sounds futuristic. It is unsettling to us even today."
Although celebrated for his interpretations of standard keyboard literature — Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, and the like — Hamelin has made the exploration of neglected music a hallmark of his career.
In addition to the intellectually and technically daunting works of Busoni ("He saw himself on a lofty plane," Hamelin said, "and the language is not always easily accessible"), the pianist has championed several other now-marginalized composers from the late 19th century on through the mid-20th, including Charles-Valentin Alkan and Nikolai Medtner.
"I like to help audiences discover something new to be crazy about," Hamelin said. "There is still a lot of music out there extremely worthy of being heard. Never mind that it is not on the same level as Chopin. It shouldn't be put on the garbage heap."
Currently on Hamelin's radar is the "gnarly" music of Russian pianist/composer Samuel Feinberg.
In addition to his musical rescue work and playing plenty of classics, Hamelin composes his own works.
"The seed was there from the very first piano lesson," he said. "I saw the scores of Chopin, Liszt and Schumann on my father's shelf and I wanted to write things like that. I had elaborate schemes and filled pages, but the ideas were zero. It wasn't until I was 18 that I felt I was halfway able."
Hamelin's compositions include a set of Etudes in minor keys, based on pieces by the likes of Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Alkan. The pianist also wrote his own "Variations on a Theme of Paganini" — the same theme that inspired Brahms, Rachmaninoff and several other composers. This dazzling and often wry work will be included on his Baltimore recital.
Judging by a several versions on YouTube (none posted by Hamelin) that have garnered a few million clicks, his most successful creation may be a witty, wildly whirling piece for player piano, "Circus Galop."
Works by living composers have not been a major emphasis for Hamelin.
"Unfortunately, I spend very little time with contemporary music," he said. "One has to make a choice. Over the last years, I've cast an eye more and more at the past. But I wish I had more time on this earth to [learn more music]. There is so much of it, so many possibilities, it makes you giddy."
If you go
Marc-Andre Hamelin gives a recital at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Shriver Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. Tickets are $19 to $39. Call 410-516-7164 or go to shriverconcerts.org