Monday, November 7, 2016

Poet of the Piano

Charles Richard-Hamelin’s debut recital last night went like a dream. I had previously admired and enjoyed his all Chopin CD, made shortly before the Warsaw competition. In the relatively short time since that eventful competition, he has already matured into a different artist. It was a performance that set out to move, and not to impress, and what a moving performance of Chopin’s music it turned out to be. Hamelin included in his programme (with one exception) late works of Chopin, pieces that show the composer at the height of his compositional powers, music so original that it had no predecessors and no successors.

It is quite common to hear in Chopin that the key of a work is not established right away. In the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1, the composer begins with a cadence that establishes the dominant of B major. It is not until measure 4 that one hears the melody in the supposed key of B major. Hamelin cast a spell on us immediately, with his playing of the opening cadence. Even compared to the high standards he set in his recording, his legato is now meltingly beautiful. This is apparent even in the tricky descending scale at m. 68, outlined by trills that mark the return of the main theme. Later on, in the coda, he made the long phrase from m. 81 to 89 sound like a single breath. It was almost as if his fingers melted into the key to create the singing tone. I appreciate his pacing of the work, never hurrying, and letting the music speaks for itself. In the three cadences that end the work, he made each one sound slightly different. And at m. 93, where the right hand reaches from D-sharp to B, he shaped it such that the final cadence that follows had a plaintive quality to it. It was a magical beginning to a magical evening.

Hamelin playing of the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 reminded me of Busoni’s statement that during a performance, an artist should lose and find himself at the same time. He played this work like a beautiful dream, but at the same time seeing clearly the way before him. Rather than sounding like a series of lovely episodes, the transitioning from one section to another was seamless and logical, and the work had this quality of the first note connecting with the final note as part of a larger plan. I also loved the way he weighed and voiced each chord. Throughout the evening, no matter how big the sound was, or how dramatic the music happened to be, his playing never felt ponderous. Nowhere was this more evident than in his playing of the Ballade, where a sense of lightness and grace pervaded the entire performance.

There is nothing more difficult for pianists than the opening of the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, which sounds so seemingly formless and without direction. Hamelin obviously grasped the overall structure and logic of Chopin’s design, and he made the arrival of the Polonaise at m. 22 seem so natural, as if it grew out of the silences of the previous measures. Throughout the performance of this difficult work, his instincts and timing for this difficult music was impeccable.

As if to lighten the mood before the second half, Hamelin ended his first half with a glittering performance of the Introduction et rondo in E-flat major, Op. 16, a rarely played work. This was music of Chopin’s youth, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a virtuoso, and the writing is reminiscent of that of the final movement of the Piano Concerto in E minor. Hamelin went far beyond overcoming the pianistic hurdles, but actually made it sound effortless and fun, much more challenging on a modern piano than on the instruments from Chopin’s days, with their lighter action. It was the perfect sorbet between more substantial courses of music.

Hamelin’s playing of the Mazurkas, Op. 59, was idiomatic, and captured the essence of the three very different works – the melancholy of the first, the grace of the second, and the strength and energy of the third. Always, it was playing that draw us to the beauty and genius of the music, and to the inner spiritual world of the composer, rather than a mere pianistic display, which seems to be all one hears today in so many of today’s young keyboard titans.

Considering the high standards Hamelin had set throughout his recital, it seems hard to believe that the highlight of the evening really was Hamelin’s performance of the Sonata in B minor, Op. 58. From first note to last, there was never a doubt in my mind that Hamelin is a pianist of the first order. He played the work with a sovereign’s command of every musical and pianistic detail. I imagine that Hamelin had had to play this work quite a lot this past year, because his interpretation of this work has really matured, something only possible with repeated performance and rethinking. His pedaling of the difficult transition from the Scherzo to the trio (mm. 60 – 61) was masterful. In the Largo movement, Hamelin really entered the emotional core of the music, and conveyed for me the otherworldly beauty of Chopin’s melodic genius. In the return of the theme at m. 99, there was an extra dimension of feeling, a feeling of regret that one is hearing this for the last time. In the last movement, Hamelin’s sense of propulsion, and his impeccable sense of timing and rhythm, made the performance an indelible experience.

In his performance of his first encore, the Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, Hamelin did not try to overwhelm the audience with surface excitement, or even with the sheer sound this music can produce. It was a performance that stressed the grandeur of the music. Even in the B section, with its frightening (for pianists) left hand octaves, sounding like the Polish army marching against her enemy, one never gets the sense that it was a virtuoso display. That said, Hamelin’s managed to make this work that we all know too well sound fresh, original, and indeed thrilling.

The young artist ended the evening with the Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33, No. 4, one of the composer’s more extended work in the genre. As in his playing of the larger works of the evening, there was a sense of logic in his transition from one section to another, and the playing was never arbitrary. (So often one hears pianist play Chopin like a sleepwalker, wandering from one episode to the next.) His Mazurka playing infuses the music with great dignity and pride, and shows his uncanny feeling for rhythm and timing. It is also stylistically impeccable.

I am quite certain that the four hundred odd pianists who entered the 2015 International Chopin Competition all have technique to burn. I am quite sure that members of the jury were not looking for glittering technique. From his performance last evening, I am certain that Hamelin owed his success to his musicianship, the maturity of his interpretation, as well as the sincerity, ardor and poetry of his playing. In last night’s concert, one felt that the artist was baring his soul in front of us.

Charles Richard-Hamelin. Remember this name; because it won’t be the last time you hear it. If he continues to develop as an artist and as a musician, this will be a name that will go down in the annals of music.

Welcome to Vancouver, Charles. And see you again soon.

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