Charles Richard-Hamelin: 5 pieces that changed my life

What music has shaped the personality of the hot young Montreal pianist?

What music has shaped the personality of the hot young Montreal pianist?

Charles Richard-Hamelin is nominated for a 2017 Juno Award for classical album of the year: solo or chamber ensemble. (Elizabeth Delage)

Since winning the silver medal and the Krystian Zimerman Prize at the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in 2015, Montreal pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin's schedule has been a whirlwind of concert engagements and recording sessions. He has toured Japan three times since then, and his latest album, Beethoven, Enescu, Chopin: Live, was nominated for classical album of the year (solo or chamber ensemble) at the Juno Awards.

"Every time I play, I sort of have to defend a title now," he told us, laughing, during a recent telephone conversation. "I'm so grateful I didn't win the thing because that would be too much pressure for me to handle." A self-described introvert, he's still figuring out how to reconcile all the attention with his desire to build a career on his own terms.

We asked him for five pieces that changed his life.

1. Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83

"When I was a teenager, I was more captivated by Prokofiev, Liszt and Rachmaninoff concertos — concertos that grab your attention right away. Brahms is more about taking the time to tell a story and [his Piano Concerto No. 2] is more mature as a piece, and every time I started playing it, I felt it was a little boring.

"I had heard about Leon Fleisher for many years because a lot of piano teachers in Montreal studied with him or were close with him — people like Marc Durand and Jean Saulnier — so I looked into his recordings (I guess I was about 18), and I found his CD of the Brahms concertos. I bought it and it's probably the CD I've listened to the most. I started to understand what Brahms was about, and it never stopped. My love for Brahms keeps growing now. I'll always go back to this recording. Not only the piano-playing, which is amazing, but the Cleveland Orchestra, under George Szell, sounds incredible on that recording."

2. Frédéric Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

"I started to work on Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 in the fall of 2013. It was my goal to enter it in a few competitions. One of the first times was in Seoul, South Korea, and then the Montreal Competition, and it's a piece that really helped me stand out in those competitions [where he won third and second prize, respectively]. I think it's the best Romantic sonata in the repertoire. It's very experimental at times, and very angular, but at the same time it's sort of a synthesis of everything Chopin is about. There's everything in this music, there's no room for more.

"After the Montreal Competition, I had a CD deal and I really wanted to record it and that's what I did. Then I got the [Krystian Zimerman] Prize at the Chopin Competition, for my performance of this piece. The same thing happened at both the Chopin and Montreal Competitions: the jury members said the final round was a little disappointing — I guess by that point, everybody was tired [laughs] — and both times I played that Chopin Sonata in the semifinals and at both competitions the jury said they mostly used the semifinals as the basis to judge the results. And now, every time I play a recital in a new city, I always play this piece."

3. George Enescu: Octet for Strings in C Major, Op. 7

"In 2014, I heard this Enescu Octet at a chamber music festival in Denmark. I had never heard a piece by Enescu before, and [...] I was discovering something completely new — a whole new language, a whole new approach to music-making. I just loved that work so much. And then I started looking at Enescu's piano music, and that's when I found his second Piano Suite, which is at once really accessible and really new. Of course, there's so much French influence from Debussy and Ravel, but it was written in 1904, before a lot of their great piano works. Enescu was in his early 20s when he wrote that, and very influenced by his teacher, Fauré, so there's not really this Romanian folklore that will later inspire so many of his works."

4. Gentle Giant, 'Cogs in Cogs'

"When I was in CEGEP, I was surrounded by people who loved progressive rock and metal and all kinds of music, and my best friend's dad was a big fan of Genesis, Yes, and all those bands. I started to fall in love with Gentle Giant. It has a lot of elements from classical music: it's very contrapuntal, there's an element of virtuosity — if you look at videos, there are about four or five musicians, and each of them plays about five or six different instruments, sometimes three or four in the same piece. And they're so together and the music is so interesting.

"It made me want to start my own band, a progressive rock quartet with no singer. It was called Suprème Quartet Deluxe [laughs]. It was very ironic, I know, but we did enter this competition called CEGEP en Spectacle and we won a prize to go play in France. So my first international gig was playing this prog rock music that I composed. It was awesome."

5. Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor

I studied with André Laplante for three years and I still see him now and again. He's been really important in my development, especially for helping me trust my instincts and find my own voice, and he's really instrumental in my success today. Everything he recorded is, to me, the new standard. He's amazing to see live, of course, but his recordings are really something else. He didn't record a lot — Ravel, Chopin, Liszt, mostly, and the Brahms CDs — but they're all really at the highest level. And his recording of the Liszt Sonata is, I think, the best. For me, this piece will forever be associated with him, and it's partly why I don't want to play it [laughs] because I feel I couldn't add anything to it that he hasn't already done.

"[Laplante] captures the grandeur, and his playing fills the space — it sounds like an orchestra. His sound is so huge, but it's never aggressive, never percussive and never virtuosic for the sake of virtuosity. And [while] he has the means to do all the difficult stuff in this sonata, it doesn't sound effortless. It should never sound effortless. You should hear the struggle in a piece like that, you know what I mean? It should sound monumental, like an opera. And he really captures the drama of it."