Review by David Richards
Toronto ON February 4th 2019
Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, ready to sign copies of his new CD following his Koerner Hall performance
Charles Richard-Hamelin accepts a standing ovation.
The pianistic artistry of Charles Richard-Hamelin shines in Schumann and Chopin!
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Yesterday’s Invesco Piano Series concert at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall featured the award-winning pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. The program notes described him as “one of the most important pianists of his generation”. There weren’t many in the audience who would disagree following the solo program of Schumann and Chopin. The well-chosen music by the 29-year-old pianist from Montréal was performed with supreme artistry and brilliant virtuosity.
Ever the consummate artist, Richard-Hamelin approached curating the program in the same thoughtful way as he executed the music. The concert, divided in two halves, opened with the music of Schumann and, following intermission, closed with Fryderyk Chopin’s Four Ballades – all music written in the same time-frame by two composers who knew each other and each other’s music.
Richard-Hamelin played with a delicacy that drew the audience into the music, while his power and passion filled the hall with fiery imagery without ever going over the edge into ugliness. His playing told the stories of both composers with conviction and nuance.
The concert opened with the short, light-hearted Arabesque in C Major, op, 18, followed immediately by the centre-piece of the program, Robert Schumann’s three-movement masterpiece Fantasy in C Major, op.18. Much has been made of this work being an autobiographical outpouring of Schumann’s tormented anguish and longing for Clara Wieck, the love of his life whom he was forbidden to see. In fact, Schumann wrote to Clara that the Fantasy was “the most passionate thing I have ever written – a profound lament for you”. Indeed, yesterday’s performance of the three-movement work left me drained. As the person sitting next to me said before intermission, I could have gone home satisfied at that point.
It was in the second half of the concert that the structure of the program came into focus. One couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two composers: their sudden change in moods, the untold yet evident stories in the music, their profound lyrical intensity and the riveting virtuosity.
The three-movement structure of the Fantasy came from Beethoven, perhaps even his final sonata with its finale also a slow movement. The work was initially entitled Ruins – Trophies – Palms: Grand Sonata for the Pianoforte for Beethoven’s Memorial. Schumann even quoted from a Beethoven song cycle. Nevertheless, I was left with the sense that it was Chopin’s Ballades that had the overriding influence on Schumann’s expressions of utter despondency juxtaposed with passionate outbursts.
Chopin visited Schumann in Leipzig in the fall of 1836 as Schumann set out to compose his Fantasy. Chopin performed his F Major Ballade, Op. 38 for Schumann and before leaving gave him a copy of his G minor Ballade Op. 23. The riveting passion and poignant lyricism of Richard-Hamelin’s playing convinced me of the influence that Chopin had on Schumann. Similarly, Schumann gave copies of his F-sharp Minor Sonata and his Études symphoniques to Chopin. The comparisons jumped out clearly in the second half of the concert in the performance of the Ballades.
The Four Ballades were played entirely convincingly. There was no lapse of energy at any time. The quiet moments were pregnant with anticipation. The impossible-to-play codas were spellbinding.
This was the fourth time that I have heard Richard-Hamelin perform since his 2015 award-winning performance at the International Chopin Competition. His Chopin has been as consistently convincing as any other young artist. His reputation continues to grow with his relentless schedule of concerts around the world (80 in 2018) and his recordings (I count four to date including a Juno nominated recording with violinist Andrew Wan of Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano). For those at the concert, there was his yet-to-be released CD of Chopin Piano Concertos with Orchestra symphonique de Montréal conducted by Kent Nagano. It will be available digitally and in stores on February 22, 2019.
Richard-Hamelin will perform next in St. John’s Newfoundland with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra on February 7th. Upcoming performances in Seville, Paris, Lyons, Kraków, and London will make for another very busy season. Watch for his next Toronto appearance in July when he will be performing in the Toronto Summer Music Festival.
The next Invesco Piano Series concert will feature another young Canadian superstar, the 23-year-old Jan Lisiecki. On Sunday, March 3rd 2019 at 3pm at Koerner Hall, Lisiecki will perform a program of music by Chopin, Schumann, Ravel and Rachmaninoff.