Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Chopin Preludes with Charles Richard-Hamelin

The 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw introduced to the world some truly unique artists, who are now all forging their own unique paths in music. Seong Jin Cho, the gold medalist, has been branching out to music by composers other than Chopin, as well as active in collaboration with other musicians. Prizewinner Eric Lu went on to win first prize at the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, impressing judges and audience members with the depth and maturity of his interpretation. Charles Richard-Hamelin, silver medalist from the competition, has been continuing his exploration of the music of Chopin and committing to them on disc, in addition to maintaining a busy performing career. The fruits of this young artist’s artistic growth are evident in this latest recording of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28 as well as the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 (Analekta).


From the Prelude in C major, it seems evident that Hamelin chooses to let the music speak for itself. There is great naturalness in his approach, and he does not “stretch” or pull the music too much in this brief work. He aptly conveys the relentless sense of gloom in the Prelude in A minor, one of Chopin’s darkest works, as well as faithfully observing the composer’s slentando indication. His playing of the chords in the final bars evokes a calmness and religiosity, as well as giving a much needed resolution. Hamelin plays the G major prelude with elfin lightness, highlighting the quicksilver quality of this music. The contrast with the Prelude in E minor that follows is startling. He achieves the buildup of musical tension through the composer’s subtle harmonic changes, and he quite deliberately avoids a cataclysmic climax at m. 17, as the composer indicates only a forte here. In the Prelude in D major, Hamelin’s subtle rubato gives the feeling that the work is made up of one long-breath phrase. He achieves a beautiful cello sound in the left hand in his playing of the Prelude in B minor, giving us a true legato by his magical pedaling. 


In the miniature gem that is the Prelude in A major, Hamelin really takes time to bring out the beauty of each phrase, but managing to give the work an overall arc in its structure. He highlights the dark colours and undercurrent, as well as the swirling harmonic change in the Prelude in F-sharp minor. In the Prelude in E major, he chooses not to bring out the relentless, almost obsessive quality, in this music, but rather its nobility, achieving it with a richness of sound in his playing, as well as by not overdoing the dotted and double-dotted rhythmic figures that recurs over and over again. He plays the Prelude in C-sharp minor with a breathless quality, as well as highlighting the playful, glittering quality of the right hand melody. The beautiful Prelude in B major – my own sentimental favourite – is played with a euphoniousness of the melodic line and an acute awareness of its shape.  Hamelin certainly brings out the absolute wildness of the music in the Prelude in G-sharp minor.


The pianist plays the Prelude in F-sharp major with a real sense of buoyancy in the right hand chords and with great beauty in the left hand accompaniment figures. The transition into the Piu lento D-sharp minor section is magical. He plays the Prelude in E-flat minor with greater clarity than many other pianists, highlighting not so much the dark swirling harmonies (which are there, but just not the focus), but taking us through the contours of the melodic line. In the Prelude in D-flat major, I feel that he is highlighting the obsessive quality, with the repeated notes in the left hand, that pervade the entire work. He achieves effective contrast between the tranquility in the opening section and the funereal middle section. Hamelin’s playing of the Prelude in B-flat minor takes my breath away. He underscores the surging quality of the music, and conveys the feeling of a wild chase with the music. His performance of the Prelude in A-flat major gives me the feeling of a complete happiness and contentment. I find his playing of the repeated A-flat pedal notes very beautiful indeed, so beautifully evoking the sounds of distant bells. In the Prelude in F minor, Hamelin plays out the rhetorical nature of the right hand melody as well as the feeling of a brief but violent outburst in this music.


In the Prelude in E-flat major, Hamelin effective pedaling highlights the subtle beauty of the harmonic changes. He underscores the sense of broadness Prelude in C minor, and I find the final pianissimo phrase particularly affecting and beautiful. His playing of the Prelude in B-flat major invites us to hear the harmonic changes in the left hand, providing a cushion of sound to the “Chopinesque” right hand melody. The pianist conjures up a little storm in the Prelude in G minor, playing up the composer’s Molto agitato indication to the hilt. The Prelude in F major is played with a beguiling smoothness that evokes the tranquility of the surface of a lake on a beautiful morning.  If the G minor prelude evokes a little storm, the Prelude in D minor is a veritable hurricane – pianist Fou Ts’ong refers to this piece as “Genghis Khan”. Hamelin certainly plays out the utter storm-tossed wildness and abandon of the music, and maintains the almost unbearable tension until the three sonorous low D’s that end the piece, and the set. 


In his performance, Hamelin manages to convey the unique character of each prelude, but also a sort of organic unity that ties the pieces together as a set.


The artist is utterly convincing in the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise, Op. 22. In the opening andante, one of Chopin’s most lovely melodies (and that’s saying a lot), he spins out the long and smooth legato line like an opera singer. This opening andante serves as a perfect foil to the brilliance of the Grande polonaise. For me, this is one of the composer’s trickiest compositions to play. On top of the considerable technical demands, the even greater challenge is to play the theme, which returns many times, in a way that captures the listener every time. Hamelin succeeds in all counts here, with his uncanny ear and musical instincts bringing out each recurrence of the theme with different colours and inflections. On top of all this, he delivers a performance of this work that is beguilingly stylish.


Charles Richard-Hamelin’s latest recording drives home a belief that I have, that every generation will have great Chopin interpreters that will bring fresh and new ideas to the composer’s creations. Like all timeless music, the music of Chopin will continue to beguile, challenge, inspire, and, ultimately, move both musicians and listeners with its otherworldly beauty and a startling originality, no matter how many times we have heard or play these same works. Even in the very crowded catalogue of great Chopin recordings, there is, or should be, room for this one addition. I am certain that this would make a very welcomed addition to your Chopin discography.