Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Return of Charles Richard-Hamelin

The Vancouver Chopin Society presented pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin in recital last night, as part of the celebration of the 100thAnniversary of Poland’s regained independence. 

Hamelin made his Vancouver debut two years ago, fresh from winning the silver medal at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Ever since that stunning recital, I have been looking forward to have another opportunity to hear this talented young musician.

From the first note to last, it was quite obvious that Hamelin has matured as a musician. In the Schumann’s Arabeske, Op. 18, which opened the programme, Hamelin delivered this miniature masterpiece with all the charm and lightness the music calls for. He did not try to make the music bigger than it is, but played it with a disarming simplicity. Especially moving was the final section of the piece (m. 209: Zum Schluss), where he played with just a tinge of regret. The final diminuendointo nothingness was particularly beautiful.

Hamelin’s playing of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 at his debut recital here amply demonstrated his affinity for and ability to handle large musical forms. This is very much in evident for the rest of his recital. I very much admire his pacing in Schumann’s Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, as well as his choice of tempi in the three movements. In the first movement, he infused the constantly shifting moods and colours with a sense of logic and purpose, thus giving the music a feeling of organic unity. Hamelin’s legatoplaying of the “long drawn out note” of the main theme must have been the envy of all the pianists in the audience. His playing of the final Adagio (m. 295), where Schumann quotes from Beethoven’s An de ferne geliebte, was very affecting.

In the very difficult second movement, Hamelin gave us a performance that certainly lives up to Schumann’s admonition: Durchaus energisch. Throughout the long movement, he managed to maintain an unflagging energy and forward motion, as well as a deliver playing that was technically impregnable. In the nail-biting coda (m. 232) - nail-biting for the pianists who have to play it, at least - Hamelin delivered it with absolute aplomb and confidence, all the way up to the rousing final chords.

The final movement was played as one long singing line. There was at m. 123 to 126 (right before nach und nach bewegter und schneller) a particular moment of incredible tenderness in Hamelin’s playing that was so beautiful and moving. 

Thinking back on Cho Seong-Jin’s playing of Chopin’s fourBalladesin his Vancouver debut recital, I can imagine the difficulty the judges at the Chopin competition must have had in deciding between him and Hamelin to be the winner of the gold medal. Cho and Hamelin are very different artists, and no one can, or should be able to really say who is the “better” musician. I suppose time would provide us with the answer to this question.
I found Hamelin’s interpretation of the four Ballades to be, for lack of a better adjective, more rhapsodic. At the same time, there was, in all four works, an evident awareness of the larger architecture in the music.

Robert Schumann was one of Chopin’s first admirers, and it would seem appropriate to recall his words on the works of Chopin. For Schumann, the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, is “one of [Chopin’s] wildest and most original compositions”. Hamelin’s playing of this oft-played work was truly epic from first note to last. I did not think that the all-too-familiar F major theme at m. 68 could move us again, as it did last evening. I loved the way he shaped the right-hand triplet motifs at mm. 82 to 89. The dramatic coda was played with a sort of controlled wildness, but without being bombastic. 

We turn again to Schumann’s words as we ponder the Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38. According to Schumann, who heard Chopin play this very work, “He mentioned that certain poems of Mickiewicz had suggested this ballade to him. On the other hand, a poet might easily be inspired to find words to his music; it stirs one profoundly.” Charles Richard-Hamelin’s playing of this work also stirred me profoundly. He played the F major section, with utter tenderness and a palpable serenity, where chords float and where the music seemed to levitate forward. The presto con fuocosections as well as the coda were as “with fire” as the music demands, so much so that the brief return of the opening theme before the end, with the repeated A’s, sounded almost startling.

I personally find the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 to be the most musically elusive of the set, and this is the one ballade that I am fearful to approach. In Schumann’s insightful (if somewhat flowery) words, “It differs strikingly in form and character from his earlier ones, and must be counted among his most original creations. In it we may recognize the refined and intellectual Pole, accustomed to moving in the most refined and distinguished circles of the French capital.” Certainly this has to be one of Chopin’s most original creations. It has been said that every composition of Chopin started off as an improvisation. This work always strikes me as having that kind of improvisatory nature. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to grasp. 

The great danger with playing this work is to make the music sound heavy. There was nothing of that last night, where Hamelin played the music with a grace and elfin lightness that Mendelssohn would have like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of the four Ballades, this one is perhaps the least overtly dramatic, but the most (again, for lack of a better word) musical. Hamelin understands this music perfectly, and he infused the music with a logic and sense of unity that is not always found. 

In the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, the two words that can be found throughout the score arein tempo. I think maybe Chopin is reminding us that pacing in this large work is the key to a successful interpretation. Under the wrong hands, this piece can very easily sound episodic, flowing from one beautiful idea to another. Not with Hamelin, who again captured the logic and overall architecture behind the music, and served as our expert guide in navigating its contrapuntal web. I very much liked his timing in the transition into the coda, with the five descending pianissimochords (giving the pianist time to panic) before launching into what might be one of Chopin’s most difficult coda. Hamelin’s playing of this wild coda was sweeping, and his pacing was impeccable, thereby avoiding the danger of sounds piling upon sounds. 

After what must have been an exhausting second half, Hamelin graciously granted us two encores. In Bach/Cortot’s Arioso from the Concerto in F minor, he played like a master weaver, spinning a long, never-ending melody, with an absolutely beautiful cantabile. Continuing on (quite appropriately) in a quiet mood, he then played Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. Last season, we heard Janusz Olejniczak in his interpretation of this beautiful work. I thought Olejniczak brought more colours to the work; Hamelin’s interpretation perhaps brought out the more delicate beauty and shading of the music. The transition into the little mazurka at m. 30 was just beautifully done. With the final pppthat ended the work, we then reached the conclusion of an uncommonly satisfying evening of music making. 

I am grateful that we were able to witness the continuing artistic journey of this talented young musician. After last night’s performance, I am sure all of us in the audience would be very happy to invite Mr. Hamelin back to our city in the very nearest future. All the signs are telling us that he will continue to grow, not just as a pianist, but as a musician and artist.

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