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Patrick Hemmerlé ‘had audience transfixed’ at Cambridge Summer Music Festival

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Patrick Hemmerle
Patrick Hemmerle

After his memorable recital of JS Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues last year, Patrick Hemmerlé returned to the 2018 Cambridge Summer Music Festival with two works immediately influenced by them, Chopin’s 24 Preludes op. 28 and Debussy’s Préludes, Book 2.

Newly-appointed artistic director of the festival David Hill put it well in his introductory remarks, describing the arrival of a pianist to the platform as a particularly ‘high wire’ moment for both audience and performer.

Such mind-bending pressure on a soloist is hard to comprehend, and especially when, as on Friday evening at Robinson College Chapel, a current heatwave made it difficult enough for the audience to focus let alone, one imagines, the pianist whose powers of technique and concentration must have been tested to the utmost.

Hemmerlé was entirely unfazed, however, and began the evening with Debussy’s Préludes, whose exquisite imagism he beautifully transmitted throughout the entire recital.

His approach in particular to Movement 4 [Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses] delicately captured its subject, the faery world of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and was especially fitted to the strange and numinous atmosphere of the moonlit terrace portrayed in Movement 7 [La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune].

Versatility was never in question either, as in the effortless transition from a spellbinding diminuendo in Movement 10 [Canope] to the virtuosic achievement of the finale, the fiendishly difficult Feux d’artifice.

After the interval came one of the great piano sequences of Chopin.

As one listened to their sheer variety and very high level of inspiration it seems inexplicable that, with his 24 Preludes in evidence, Chopin could ever have been dismissed as a composer of sentimental drawing-room music.

Some decades ago Bernard Levin in The Times confessed, a little shamefacedly, to having harboured such an opinion in the past. In later life, however, he had changed his mind, explaining his reasons in a celebratory article whose title, ‘I’m listening now Frédéric’, effectively said it all.

Some of these comparatively short pieces are uncomplicated enough for the average Grade 3 pianist to ‘have a go’ at while others require the virtuoso’s talent to perform. Many are lyrical and melodic, others are dramatic, passionate and stormy like whirlwinds. The entire composition builds incrementally with the ghosts of other genres dear to Chopin, such as the mazurka, towards the terrific heart-wrenching power of its final movement.

At times Hemmerlé was visibly transported. Who couldn’t be? The music had cast its spell and his transfixed audience was loud in its acclaim as it called for more.

It is devoutly to be wished that Patrick will return to the festival. Reviewers are of course meant to review and not make suggestions, but never mind, here goes.

In his concluding remarks before his encore he recalled how he had already performed more than 90 Preludes and Fugues. But would he consider in future, perhaps, the wonderful 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich if, that is, he has them ‘in his fingers’ as Horowitz used to say? In hopes of such, I’ll be keeping mine firmly crossed from now on.

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