THE UP-AND-COMING CANADIAN ARTISTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH PIANIST CHARLES RICHARD-HAMELIN
The name ‘Hamelin’ has certainly become synonymous with the highest-quality Canadian pianism. Earlier in the year, we interviewed the celebrated Marc-André Hamelin; now we turn to fellow (but not related) Montreal pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, just 30 this year, who moved strongly into public attention since winning the Silver Medal at the 2015 Warsaw Chopin Competition. Reviewing his 2-disc set of highlights from the competition, Gramophone stated that ‘Richard-Hamelin is a supremely artistic, highly sensitive yet thoroughly masculine young pianist, whose strikingly original ideas remain true to the spirit of Chopin’ and concluded that ‘this is a young pianist of whom we will hear a great deal more, and very soon.’ In his Vancouver debut concert in November 2016 (review), I wrote about his Chopin: ‘What we saw was wonderfully-concentrated inward playing that aimed at the soul of the composer and exuded great intelligence and architectural strength.’ The pianist has now released 4 CDs for Analekta, including the just-released Chopin Piano Concertos, with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano, and the first disc of an integral set of Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Andrew Wan. Gramophone has lauded the interpretation of the Chopin concertos as one of ‘extraordinary originality and distinction.’
Charles Richard-Hamelin studied with Paul Surdulescu, Sara Laimon, Boris Berman, André Laplante, and Jean Saulnier, and is a graduate of McGill University, the Yale School of Music and the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal. He has been awarded the Order of Arts and Letters of Québec and the prestigious Career Development Award of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Since it has been almost four years since Richard-Hamelin’s conquest at the Chopin Competition, it seemed very worthwhile to catch up with him to find out how his artistic life has evolved. We thank the Vancouver Chopin Society for this opportunity.
1. HOW DO YOU LOOK BACK ON YOUR 2015 CHOPIN COMPETITION EXPERIENCE NOW?
Previous Chopin Competition winner Kevin Kenner once summed it up with the famous Dickens quote: ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ I feel the same way. People tend to forget how difficult and consuming it is for a young artist to prepare and perform such complicated and emotionally exhausting music in a short period of time, and under the most stressful conditions one can imagine. Yet there was something magical about it all, as set in that legendary Warsaw hall. Somehow, it made it possible for me to be myself on stage, and be able to say what I wanted to say. What also helped was to focus on the music itself: to make my performance about Chopin, not myself. I really do think the Chopin Competition’s main goal should be the celebration of the genius of the composer. Receiving the silver medal was of course incredibly unexpected and single-handedly changed my life. I had never performed professionally outside of Canada before; after my medal, I quickly had engagements all over the world.
2. HOW MUCH HAVE YOUR CONCERT ENGAGEMENTS ACTUALLY TAKEN OFF?
Around the time of the competition, I may have done about 20 concerts a year, only in Quebec. That jumped to about 85 concerts throughout the world in both 2017 and 2018.
3. THAT’S A LOT OF CONCERTS. HOW ARE YOU REACTING TO IT?
People might think it’s all fun and vacation, but it’s not. I was overwhelmed at first. Nobody teaches you about the travelling and having to learn so much repertoire on the road. But I’m really finding my way now. I feel much more experienced: when things go wrong, I quickly get back on my feet. I know my weaknesses more. One thing you definitely must get used to is all the different pianos you have to play while touring: you really have to try to get the best out of each instrument.
4. WHAT DO YOU REGARD AS YOUR MOST EXCITING CONCERT EXPERIENCES SINCE WINNING THE MEDAL?
One real highlight came in the summer of 2016, before I came to Vancouver. I replaced Maurizio Pollini in a recital at the Prague Spring Festival. I was really lucky to be able to do that: Dvorak Hall is wonderful too, right on the river. Then I played the Brahms First Concerto with the Montréal Symphony and Kent Nagano for the first time that same summer. That was also a big event because it was at the Festival de Lanaudière in Joliette, Québec, Canada’s biggest classical music festival, and I am originally from that small town. It was a beautiful sunny day and about 3000 people showed up – it was my big moment and I remember it fondly. Since then, I have performed both Chopin concertos together in three concerts with the Montréal Symphony, and the live recording taken from these has just been released on Analekta. For me, this is a dream come true.
5. YOU SEEM TO ENJOY LIVE RECORDING AND LARGE CONCERT AUDIENCES.
When I recorded the Chopin concertos, it was the live energy that I really liked. It really helped the creative process. I do not necessarily like giving concerts for large audiences, but they do require their own skillset and you can really only learn ‘on the job’ what such performances demand of you. In Japan, I gave a couple of recitals in very large halls, sometimes for over 2500 people, which is clearly a very different experience than performing in a more intimate 400-seat recital hall. Indeed, there’s something slightly anachronistic about playing a Chopin Nocturne on a huge beast of Steinway in a large hall in front of so many people. You’re so far removed from its original source and history – it almost feels like a transcription.
6. WHAT FEELING DO YOU HAVE ABOUT THE AUDIENCES YOU’RE PLAYING FOR THESE DAYS?
With all the technology and social media these days, I sometimes worry that the attention span of audiences will grow shorter and shorter. Take a piece like the Schumann Fantasy op.17. It’s all about manipulating sounds and silences over time, and its structure is so large. I worry that it will become harder for people who are not aficionados to understand and be moved by this music in the future.
7. MOST PEOPLE VIEW YOU AS A CHOPIN SPECIALIST, THOUGH YOU HAVE BEEN RECOGNIZED FOR YOUR BEETHOVEN PLAYING TOO. HOW DID YOUR LOVE OF CHOPIN BEGIN?
My first teacher Paul Surdulescu (who taught me from age 5 to 18) started me on Chopin when I was 12, assigning me a new Chopin piece every year. I simply fell in love with the composer. It seems that some pianists are more suited for Liszt than Chopin: possibly just the difference between extrovert and introvert leanings. A lot of Liszt never really spoke to me, though some of his pieces, such as the Second Ballade, I enjoyed. But there was something in Chopin’s works as a whole that immediately drew me in: the harmonies, the way it feels on the keyboard.
8. CHOPIN USED MANY DIFFERENT MUSICAL FORMS TO EXPRESS HIS FEELINGS. DO YOU THINK OF THEM AS QUITE DIFFERENT IN STRUCTURAL AND EMOTIONAL TERMS, OR MAINLY CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH?
He didn’t write that many works for the big stage. Perhaps the Ballades are well-suited for a 9-foot Steinway and can be played in a grand manner, but even the concertos do not require a ‘big’ approach for them to work. It’s the intimacy which is common to virtually all his pieces. He’s one of the few composers that even those who barely know anything about classical music can identify. One hears five seconds of Chopin on the radio and you know it’s him. You can’t always do the same with Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn. There’s a signature to Chopin. But what is it? He never repeats himself, yet we recognize him instantly -- very mysterious indeed.
9. SOME PIANISTS I HAVE TALKED WITH EMPHASIZE CHOPIN’S ROOTS IN BEETHOVEN. THIS IS CLEARLY NOT A VIEW YOU AGREE WITH?
No, they are very different. Chopin’s concertos were only written 2 or 3 years after Beethoven died, and the piano writing is from a different planet entirely. Chopin’s output was a revolution, and changed the approach for later composers for the piano in the most significant way. He invented a whole pianistic language. In his compositions, it’s sometimes hard to tell what came from conceptual thinking and what came from improvisation. It’s at once so natural and free, yet the voice-leading is as disciplined and carefully planned as in a Bach chorale. This paradox fascinates me: how his music was so carefully put together yet how spontaneous it sounds.
10. SO, WHICH HISTORICAL PIANIST WAS YOUR REFERENCE FOR CHOPIN WHEN YOU GREW UP ?
Dinu Lipatti has always been the gold standard for me. His recording of the B minor Sonata defines for me the ideal approach to Chopin playing. There are countless other historical pianists which have been extremely inspiring for me, like Hofmann, Cortot, and Friedman, but I have always regarded Lipatti’s interpretation as the most balanced and the most respectful of the score.
11. OVER THE YEARS, YOU HAVE PLAYED A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF BEETHOVEN, AND YOU HAVE RECENTLY STARTED TO RECORD THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS WITH THE CONCERTMASTER OF THE MONTRÉAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, ANDREW WAN. HOW DID THIS PROJECT ARISE?
Andrew has been concertmaster in Montréal for 10 years now. When I played the Brahms D minor Concerto with the orchestra in 2016, he was impressed and got in touch. He’s a very natural player and we don’t need to speak that much: that’s a good thing! I’m really happy with what we have achieved. We started with a disc of Sonatas 6-8, to be followed by Nos. 1-3 and 5, then the remaining three. The first of these discs has been released and had the good fortune of being nominated for a Juno award.
12. DOES THIS COLLABORATION SUGGEST THAT YOU ARE GOING TO PERFORM MORE CHAMBER MUSIC IN PUBLIC?
Prior to the Chopin Competition, I actually did quite a bit. I have less time now but it’s still a very important part of my music-making life: the chamber music repertoire contains some of the greatest music ever written. I have recently played the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet with members of the Dover Quartet in Toronto, and I am about to play Schubert’s ’Trout’ with the Meccore String Quartet in Poland.
13. MANY OF YOUR SOLO RECITALS HAVE A CHOPIN CORE TO THEM. WHAT ARE THE MORE TOPICAL OR UNUSUAL COMPOSERS YOU HAVE BALANCED YOUR PROGRAMMES WITH?
One composer I continue to explore in parallel with Chopin is the Romanian composer George Enescu. I recorded his Second Piano Suite on an earlier CD for Analekta and I’ll be playing the first suite a lot this summer, notably in Bucharest for the Enescu Festival. I find his entire output fascinating and he truly has his own unique harmonic sensibility. Being a legendary violinist and great pianist, he’s able to write incredibly well for both instruments.
14. PERHAPS IT IS ONLY OF LOCAL INTEREST, BUT DO YOU EVER GET IN CONTACT WITH MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN, LOUIS LORTIE OR OTHER PIANISTS IN THE FRENCH-CANADIAN TRADITION?
I did meet Marc-André in Montréal for a long talk a couple years ago and we still keep in touch every now and then. He’s such a role model for me: not only in terms of career or musicianship but in how he remains so humble and down to earth when he has all the reasons in the world not to be. I also keep in touch with Janina Fialkowska, André Laplante and Jean Saulnier, who all played key roles in my development.
15. SO, WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR SPECIAL MOMENTS IN THE FIRST HALF OF 2019?
My highlight so far has been to record two Mozart Concertos (K. 482 and K. 491) with Les Violons du Roy, the very fine chamber orchestra from Québec City, and their conductor Jonathan Cohen. I felt truly blessed the whole week, playing some of the most extraordinary music ever written with such amazingly gifted and dedicated musicians. The record should be released on Analekta in early 2020.
16. YOU CLEARLY HAVE HAD A REMARKABLE NUMBER OF MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES SO FAR IN YOUR CAREER. HOW DO YOU FEEL ON MAINTAINING THE EVER-EXPANDING PACE OF YOUR CURRENT CONCERT AND RECORDING SCHEDULE?
It has taken a little getting used to, but after almost four years at it, I think I’m now really finding my ‘groove’ in this lifestyle. I’m fully happy with the state of things, and I still feel incredibly lucky to be doing this for a living.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019
Photo Credits: Elizabeth Delage, Antoine Santo