Recently, Team GDW traveled down to the storied Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to hear Québecois pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin perform an all-Chopin recital. This was a performance we’d been eager to hear – one which unfortunately had been delayed from its original date in January but which brought us out instead on a sunny April afternoon to the Terrace Theater on the Kennedy Center’s top level.
That Hamelin chose to focus his appearance exclusively on the music of Frédéric Chopin is no surprise – he earned the silver medal at the XVII International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, including the Krystian Zimerman prize for best sonata performance, and has featured Chopin’s music not only in live performances but also three recordings for Analekta. (He was also nominated for a Juno for his 2019 recording of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with Andrew Wan.) Of Chopin’s music, Hamelin said during his first remarks in the performance, “I never tire of it – it’s so beautiful and ever-changing.”
With this in mind, we settled in our seats for the first half of the recital, which included two nocturnes (op. 27) and the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 35. The nocturnes laid a deceptively gentle groundwork for the performance, but the sonata – which Hamelin described as “one of (Chopin’s) most violent and dark pieces” – took the audience into its brooding depths, as if the pianist was guiding us into a dark cavern of the soul in what was a scintillating performance of the work. The third movement of the sonata in particular (which begins and ends with the familiar funeral march) spoke volumes of hopelessness and even abandonment, as exemplified in Hamelin’s playing.
After a brief intermission, Hamelin embarked on the full set of Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes. Many piano students – myself included – learn a few of the simpler preludes during their musical journey, but while some of the pieces are technically less challenging, they still require skill and sensitivity to bring out their true depths. Hamelin has both, and explored the romanticism of the works without skirting too close to what some might consider ‘schmaltz’ (by itself, no small feat). He dazzled in the more difficult preludes – many of Chopin’s works are note-intensive and require not only extreme dexterity but finger and hand independence with contrasting rhythms, but Hamelin made it look and sound effortless.
Following a rapturous and well-deserved round of applause, Hamelin chose an encore not by Chopin, but by Johannes Brahms: one of my personal favorites, the Intermezzo #2, op. 118. This is another Romantic-era piece and the pianist fully utilized his considerable gift for Romantic-era music in it, much to the audience’s (and my) delight.
This was a thoroughly delightful performance, and we’re hopeful that Charles Richard-Hamelin will travel down our way again soon, or at least to a city to which we can easily travel (hint to the other half of Team GDW and to our GTA readers: he’ll appear in Toronto in July 2023 and again in March 2024!). To see when he’s coming to your area, click here.