Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Charles Richard-Hamelin, Canadian Pianist

When Van Cliburn returned to the United States after winning the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York, as well as an avalanche of publicity. Well, the world has become a very different place since 1958, and we Canadians do things a little more quietly, except when it comes to hockey. When pianist Andre Laplanté came home with the silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky competition, or when Jon Kimura Parker won the Leeds Piano Competition in 1984, the responses had been relatively mute, except within the small circle of classical music lovers. (To be fair, Parker’s win in Leeds was greeted with some jubilation in Vancouver, the artist’s hometown.)

Last year, my Canadian heart again sang with pride when pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin returned to Canada with the silver medal at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Even with the hundreds of piano competition taking place all over the world, a win at the Chopin – probably one of the most prestigious competitions today - remains the Holy Grail for pianists.

Yesterday, I put down my impressions of the debut CD of Georgijs Osokins. This morning I had a chance to listen to Charles Richard-Hamelin’s CD, also of music by Chopin, made before his triumph in Poland last year (Analekta AN 2 9127). Like Osokins, Hamelin included in his recording Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor as well as the Polonaise-Fantasie, but Hamelin rounds out his CD with the composer’s Nocturnes, Op. 62.

I started listening first with the two Nocturnes, which is placed at the end of the CD. Right at the outset of the Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1, I noticed Hamelin’s very emotive sound, one that catches your attention immediately. He plays the opening theme beautifully, but simply, directly, and does not overindulge in rubato. It is not until m. 53 that he allows a little flexibility to the unfolding melody. There is a beautifully intimate pianissimo at the brief passage from m. 62 to the key change at m. 68. Hamelin effectively observes Chopin’s poco piu lento with the descending trills at m. 68. In the coda he evokes a gorgeous sound from his instrument and achieves a magical mood of the sound coming from afar.

As in the previous work, Hamelin plays the opening of the Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 2 simply, allowing the music to build up gradually and naturally. Beginning at m. 36, there is a very effective buildup of tension towards the agitato section at m. 40. He is very cognizant of the fact that Chopin is far from being a “right handed composer”; he makes us aware of the role the left hand plays in the harmonic as well as contrapuntal design of the music. At the return of the theme at m. 58, there is brief but dramatic moment of bleakness in the sound.

I very much like Hamelin’s atmospheric opening of the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. He allows for a lot of space in this opening, and does not rush the ascending broken chord notes (mm. 1, 2, 7 and 8) after the solemn chords. Unlike Osokins, Hamelin thinks of this work, I sense, more as a Polonaise than a Fantasie. He effectively highlights the dance-like aspect of the work in the left hand Polonaise rhythm at m. 22, and uses it as a rhythmic underpinning as the music unfolds. His timing with the two fermatas at mm. 62 and 63 is impeccable. At m. 66, there was a shift in mood, a surge of energy, achieved by the surging left hand ascending scales. The interplay between the two hands is extremely well done, and again highlights the intricacies of Chopin’s contrapuntal design. Hamelin achieves with his pedaling a beautiful blending of sounds in the return of the opening Polonaise melody with broken chord accompaniment in the left hand (m. 94), and there is an absolutely gorgeous turn of phrase in the right hand at mm. 123 to 124. I agree with his choice of tempo at the poco piu lento at m. 148, and I thought that his voicing of the chords is lovely. At mm. 168 to 179, Hamelin once again draws my attention to the beauty Chopin’s writing for the left hand. He achieves a beautiful blending of sound in the long passage of trills at mm. 200 to 204. With the brief return of the introduction at mm. 214 and 215, he manages to highlight the contrast between the two statements. Overall, I feel that Hamelin’s view of the score is one of epic grandeur rather than one that is more dreamy, or fantastic. Therein lies how Chopin’s works can and will always accommodate an infinite number of approaches.

Hamelin’s approach to the Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 highlights the drama of this large work and clearly demonstrates his awareness of the work’s overall architecture. In the first movement, the arrival of the second theme at m. 41 sounds so logical and natural that we then realize how the pianist must have been allowing the music to build and to develop up to that point. Hamelin’s playing of the brief octave melody at mm. 61 and 62 has a quietly ardent quality to it, and he beautifully plays the two descending statements in the left hand at mm. 131 and 132. During the statement of the 2nd theme in the recapitulation, there is a sudden moment of intimacy at mm. 158 to 160 that is beguiling.

In the Scherzo, the artist is aiming for more clarity rather than a dizzying blur of sonorities. The notes in the right hand are more clearly etched, but the music never sounds heavy-handed. Hamelin’s awareness of the work’s architecture is being made aware again in how he effectively transitions into the Trio. His buildup towards the end of the Scherzo is simply breathtaking.

The opening of the third movement is played with great dignity, almost in a Beethovenian manner. Hamelin’s playing of the theme is rhythmically tight. I believe that he is trying to let the beauty of the music speak for itself. He achieves the transition from B major to E major (mm. 28 to 29) beautifully. In the return of the main theme at m. 99, Hamelin achieves a rocking motion in the left hand, almost like a Barcarolle rhythm, which gives the melody a different feel to it.

Hamelin manages another incredible buildup of tension in the brief opening of the fourth movement, a portent for things to come. Hamelin highlights the perpetual mobile aspect of the theme, and gives the entire movement a sense of unflagging and unrelenting energy. The playing of this difficult movement is truly epic. In spite of this, Hamelin wisely leaves the fireworks until the end of the work, and really unleashes the powers of his virtuosity only at m. 262. From beginning to end, this is a truly masterful reading of this great late work of Chopin.

Listening to the two CD’s by Georgijs Osokins and Charles Richard-Hamelin, we should be glad to know that in this age of image over musicianship, we still have in our midst young artists who are in search of the truth in music, and seeking the meaning of what lies behind the written notes. To listen to these very different interpretations of Chopin’s late works has been a most rewarding experience, and I find myself being fascinated by these two different viewpoints, as much as I am by Chopin’s design.

Charles Richard-Hamelin makes his Vancouver recital debut on the evening of Sunday, November 6th at the Vancouver Playhouse, under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society (

Perhaps Mr. Hamelin does not need a ticker tape parade down West Georgia Street, but I hope there will be a large and enthusiastic audience at the concert for this young artist who has made history and brought glory to Canadian culture.

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