If pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin could cast a spell of invisibility upon himself when performing he probably would. He strives to remove himself from the equation, letting the composer's intentions come the fore as much as possible.
"I am not trying to impart my personality," he says. "It is very important to read the score on a basic level and between the lines. [Audiences] won't hear willful exaggerations but my attention to the composer's score." It's something he appreciates when his own compositions for the piano are performed. "Sometimes you agonize over the best intentions, but you want to do the best job helping the performer to perform what I want."
The French-Canadian pianist is renowned for his performances and recordings of lesser-known and virtuosic works, but he'd rather listeners aren't focused on those elements, either.
"It shouldn't matter if it is difficult," he says. "That is my problem. I would like my listeners to listen to my music and not think about it. We [pianists] should conceal what we are doing. I do not enjoy playing pianistically difficult music. I wish this stuff was easier! I play it because I believe in it and for the thrill of presenting this music to audience." He did just that when he played the vigorous piano part of Messiaen's "Turangalila-Symphonie" with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2007 (he also appeared with the orchestra in 1987).
Among the composers Mr. Hamelin championed are Alkan, Busoni, Godowsky and Medtner. Lately he has begun to record canonical works and a disc of Debussy piano works due out this year on the Hyperion label, where he has recorded more than 40 albums. But his approach hasn't changed. Exhaustive research into manuscripts, biography, style, context and accounts of the composers go into his works.
What you won't hear are hints of other pianists' interpretation. "I don't listen to recordings when I am learning the piece," he says. "I don't want to be influenced."
But at the heart of things for Mr. Hamelin is not adherence to self-imposed rules or vain attempts at objectivity but to allow as great a chance as possible to unfurl the magic of a work through unbiased attention to detail. "Everything in a score is a measure of characteristics. A forte can be majestic, marshal, terrifying, unsettling or warning."
Across the dynamic range, the last three adjectives characterize the work Mr. Hamelin will perform with the Takacs Quartet on the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society series: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57, composed during Stalin's repressive regime. "It was written during the war and it is colored by it. Most is quite bleak. It has a certain lighthearted feeling, but you always sense the despair behind it."
Just try not to sense the performer in front of it.
Also on the program are Schubert's Quartet No. 13, "Rosamunde," and Britten's Quartet No. 1.