Charles Richard-Hamelin: Chopin
Charles Richard-Hamelin is the 27-year-old Quebec-born pianist who won second prize at the Chopin Competition last year. Many apparently felt he was a shoo-in for first place, we are told, had not his concerto performance been disturbed by a bad case of nerves. Now the Fryderyk Chopin Institute has released a generous two-disc set, tracing Richard-Hamelin’s progress through the first-, second- and third-stage auditions, as well his contribution to the winners’ concert in October 2015. I can only echo what has already been written about him. Richard-Hamelin is a supremely artistic, highly sensitive yet thoroughly masculine young pianist, whose strikingly original ideas remain true to the spirit of Chopin. For those of us not fortunate enough to have been in Warsaw for the concert, this release is probably the next best thing.
Perhaps the most perceptive interpretation of the lot is the Polonaise-fantaisie, easily among the most beautifully wrought and persuasive I’ve heard. No wandering in a trance-like vagueness here. This is a boldly conceived and powerful performance: robust music, not reminiscent of the dance but actually dancing and happy to be doing so. Naturally there is plenty of atmosphere, punctuated by pensive moments, but Richard-Hamelin’s performance seems so forthright and inevitable, so self-evidently sane and musical, that one could almost imagine we’ve been listening to wrong-headed, or at least highly self-indulgent, readings for the past century and a half. This performance seems less a late masterpiece by a deathly ill composer than the work of a man who still relishes life.
The mighty F sharp minor Polonaise is fairly ablaze with intense patriotic fervour, though in the midst of this abandon, Richard-Hamelin strikes a secure balance between heart and intellect. Each section serves a unique function within the structure as a whole and the overall impression is lean and succinct. The far less familiar E flat major Rondo, Op 16, is played with panache and virtuoso abandon, and simply oozes charm. Each harmonic turn in the beautifully paced, eloquent C sharp minor Prelude, Op 45, registers surprise. The perfectly prepared cadenza unfolds with an acceleration that is far from precipitous, concluding with an understated aptness.
From the clarion peal of the B minor Sonata’s opening notes, Richard-Hamelin holds us aloft in an unswerving trajectory from which we’re not released until the last chord of the finale. His unerring sense of proportion is one of many factors that conspire to create a rare sense of cohesion. A fluent rubato enhances the rhetorical poise of thematic material – the lines always breathe and move – without unhinging the integrity of the overriding structure. The open, spacious vistas of the Largo are a sensual delight, and once we’re launched on the fleet and foreboding Presto non tanto, there’s nothing to do but hold on for dear life.
And there are Études, Nocturnes, Mazurkas, an A flat Ballade and a Barcarolle to savour as well. The sound of the Yamaha on these live performance recordings is superbly captured. Richard-Hamelin has bold, original ideas about the music he plays, the emotional reservoirs to back them up and the technical equipment to convey them without distraction. Surely this is a young pianist of whom we will hear a great deal more, and very soon.