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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Warsaw Silver Winner Charles Richard-Hamelin Is In Sterling Form

By Arthur Kaptainis on May 5, 2017

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Photo: Courtesy Women's Musical Club of Toronto
Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin (Photo: Courtesy of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto)

Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin at Walter Hall. May 4.

The appearance Thursday in Walter Hall of Charles Richard-Hamelin was part of his reward for having won a career development award from the Women’s Musical Club more than two years earlier. As the chairwoman of the venerable society implied in her opening remarks, the club itself turned out to be a beneficiary, in view of the consequent exploits of this 27-year-old, which include a silver medal in the 2015 Warsaw Chopin competition.

A native of the rural Lanaudière region of Quebec, Richard-Hamelin certainly played with the kind of refinement that leads a contestant quickly through the preliminary rounds and into the playoffs. The right-hand demisemiquavers leading to the coda of Chopin’s Impromptu No. 3 Op. 61 could hardly have been lighter or more clearly articulated, and the tantalizing stop-and-go final bars of the better-known Impromptu No. 1 Op. 29 were timed to perfection.

As for the even better-known Fantasie-Impromptu Op. 66, Richard-Hamelin smartly balanced its agitated and songful elements, even selling me on that potentially cloying final return in the left hand of the “Chasing Rainbows” tune. Chopin’s Three Mazurkas Op. 59, after intermission, were subtle and playful. The last of these again showed Richard-Hamelin to be the master of the elegant exit. (Not literally, mind you, for his habit is to return directly to the Steinway after taking a bow.)

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Photo: Courtesy Women's Musical Club of Toronto
Charles Richard-Hamelin (Photo: Courtesy of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto)

The most substantial work of the afternoon was Schumann’s quixotic Sonata No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor (the same key of the mazurka that preceded it, by coincidence or design). Again we could marvel at the clarity of presentation. This pianist brings to the Romantics the sort of awareness of voice-leading we admire in the best interpreters of Bach.

Nor did the rhythmic profile leave anything to be desired: The repeated left-hand arpeggios of the introduction were firm but flexible in the rhapsodic Schumann manner. Quirky punched-out passages in the Scherzo and finale attested to the composer’s volatile state of mind.

Charles Richard-Hamelin with school group (Photo: Courtesy Women's Musical Club of Toronto
Charles Richard-Hamelin with school group (Photo: Courtesy of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto)

Improvisation, indeed, was a subtext to the recital, which opened with a burnished version of Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor that needed more rhythmic eccentricity to seem truly spontaneous. The Capriccio from Arno Babadjanian’s folksy three-movement Elegy — a memorial tribute to his fellow Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian — was perhaps the most unbuttoned interlude of the afternoon.

This was classy playing from beginning to end (the encore being a solo version of the Largo from Bach’s Concerto in F Minor BWV 1056). Yet if am asked what kind of pianist Richard-Hamelin is, the unhelpful answer at this stage of his career might well be “very, very good.” Certainly, there is an apt and satisfying sense of rubato, but the conservative program did not present many opportunities to make a strongly individual impression. Not that the near-sellout crowd showed any evidence of reserve.

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Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.

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