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Charles Richard-Hamelin: 'Chopin is usually all about grey areas'

On his new album, the Canadian pianist continues his exploration of Chopin's subtle shadings.

On his new album, the Canadian pianist continues his exploration of Chopin's subtle shadings

'I think it’s interesting to listen to how Chopin’s music evolved over time in both long forms and miniatures.' — Charles Richard-Hamelin (Elizabeth Delage)

"While I get to play music from many different eras, Chopin remains at the heart of my concert life," says Charles Richard-Hamelin, who has just released Ballades & Impromptus, his third all-Chopin album on Analekta Records.

Since winning second prize and the Krystian Zimerman Prize at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition, Richard-Hamelin's life has been a blur of concert tours, playing for audiences keen to hear the Chopin that propelled him to fame — "especially in Asian countries," he adds.

"Every year, I'm asked to play full Chopin programs and it's really a blessing. This way I get to continue my lifelong exploration of his music, which still fascinates me so much," he explained to CBC Music recently.

"Last season, my recital program included the four Ballades (including a memorable one in Koerner Hall, which was broadcast by CBC Music)." He estimates that he has played them as a set at least 50 times now. "I've also played the Impromptus a lot since 2017. The timing felt right to record both."

'Refined and graceful writing'

Richard-Hamelin's relationship with Chopin's Ballades dates back to his teens. "The first one I learned was No. 3, when I was 16," he recalls. "I worked on the fourth in my undergraduate studies at McGill and I played the other two much later, I think in 2015."

Ballade No. 3 holds a special place in his heart. "[It's] the one I played at the Chopin Competition, in both the preliminary round and the first round. It's the shortest and, in my opinion, the most difficult to get just right. It is such a bittersweet piece, full of longing but with refined and graceful writing."

Richard-Hamelin considers Ballade No. 2 to be the black sheep of the set. "It's pretty rare for Chopin to insist so much on two extremely contrasting sections with little grey area in between. Chopin is usually all about grey areas: where transition material is as inspired and lyrical as main themes and where emotional ambiguity rules. It is extremely unique in that respect in Chopin's output and it feels closer to the sound world of Robert Schumann, to whom he actually dedicated the piece."

'Influenced by the contrapuntal genius of Bach'

Part of Richard-Hamelin's motivation to pair the Ballades with the Impromptus was the relative obscurity of the latter set. "As opposed to the Etudes, Preludes, Nocturnes and to a certain extent the Mazurkas, the Impromptus (with the exception of the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66) have not been recorded as much and are wonderful small gems."

"I think it's interesting to listen to how Chopin's music evolved over time in both long forms and miniatures," he continues. "The third Impromptu and fourth Ballade are very good examples of his later style, influenced by the contrapuntal genius of Bach. The second one is a standout: it's perhaps the only one that feels truly like a written-out improvisation, as the other three follow a very clear ABA form."

But, he says all four Impromptus share a sense of lightness. "There is much less emphasis on dramatic tension here than in the Ballades. However, the constantly inspired musical ideas, the right-hand writing which is so idiomatic and satisfying to play, and general spirit of freedom is, to me, irresistible."

Chopin is not the only composer on Richard-Hamelin's plate these days. Earlier this month, he was in Romania playing music by George Enescu, another of his preoccupations. He's two-thirds of the way through recording Beethoven's nine violin sonatas with Andrew Wan, and most recently he did recording sessions with Les Violons du Roy and their conductor, Jonathan Cohen, for an upcoming release of two piano concertos by Mozart (K. 482 and 491). "We should start editing soon and I'm very excited about it," he says.

His concert calendar is quite packed. Highlights of the current season include a recital on Nov. 17 at Quebec City's Palais Montcalm (where Ballades & Impromptus was recorded), performances in January of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and on Feb. 3, chamber music by Dvorák at Ottawa's Chamberfest.

Ballades & Impromptus is available via Analekta Records and the major music-streaming services.

Ballades & Impromptus, out Sept. 20, 2019, is Charles Richard-Hamelin's 3rd all-Chopin album for Analekta Records. (Supplied by Analekta)