Toronto Summer Music Festival (Part 4): Charles Richard-Hamelin

Charles Richard-Hamelin, photo by James Ireland

Charles Richard-Hamelin, photo by James Ireland


The Toronto Summer Music Festival presented Canadian Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin in a mixed program of solo piano pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Frederic Chopin and a piano quartet by Johannes Brahms on July 19th at Walter Hall. 

1) Sergei Rachmaninoff: Morceaux de fantaisie, Op.3

  • Elegy in E-flat minor

  • Prelude in C-sharp minor 

  • Melody in E Major

  • Pulcinella in F-sharp minor 

  • Serenade in B-flat minor

 2)   Frederic Chopin: Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22

 3)   Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25

  • Allegro 

  • Intermezzo. Allegro ma non troppo -- Trio: Animato 

  • Andante con moto - Animato

  • Rondo alla zingarese: Presto - Meno presto - Molto presto 

it’s one of my favourite pieces on piano and i was willing to forbear the entirety of this program for the five minutes of the Andante Spianato that precedes chopin’s Grande Polonaise. the piece was the first thing to come to mind after coming across a quote from american poet denise levertov in her foreword for a poetry anthology this week:“I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock”. chopin too can fulfill such a function. and seeing the unfettered tranquility, the reclining velleity with which pianist charles richard-hamelin caressed the piece out his instrument, it would not be entirely amiss to assume it was as well for him the highlight of the program. my ear--and therefore my love--for this piece was trained by yet another canadian pianist: back in 2017 jan lisiecki recorded the album Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon which opens with said Andante Spianato. by some marvelous intuition of sound engineering and the intuitively marvelous lisiecki, the recording on headphones is a wet insect of pleasure swimming back and forth between two headphones, ASMR-on-demand

Chopin by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband; instagram @jplewisandsons

Chopin by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband; instagram @jplewisandsons

the piece opens with a murmuring nocturne-esque accompaniment on the left hand, a brief paragraph of music lays a plush rug for the first hesitating notes on the left hand, like a toe teasing the surface of pool. this tripsying along the surface continues as the accompaniment revs the arpeggios forward and simple motion (semplice) until the percussive right hand is subsumed by the fluidity of the left (tranquilo), trading its toes for paddles. at about the two-minute mark a brief pause clears the scenery for the arpergios to take deep glistening dives that are volleyed over and over by the pulsating accompaniment. the image returns to the surface for a brief lingering passage before once again plunging into nocturnal depths, rinsing and repeating until the fountain of this lucid dream is stoppered by the carnival and fanfare of the altogether more terrestrial Grande Polonaise Brillante which chopin prefixed with the Andante four years after initial composition. all this and much more could be said and one would still be more than just shy of capturing in words the beauty of the slouching somnolence induced by this Andante. rather than mere technical fluency, what this piece demands of a good performance is the evocation of a lingering mood--not exactly weightlessness--but levitation. from the first note struck by richard-hamelin it was clear that he was very well versed in the sense of pace that accentuates the indelibly blended segments of the Andante. in the slow segments his fingers are eelish coils murmuring between octaves, and in those quick and piercingly-witted strands of notes, his right hand sent spindrifts of shimmering notes flying through Walter Hall. 

before getting to chopin however, richard-hamelin treated us to five pieces from rachmaninoff’s Morceaux de fantasie, composed by him at the age of 19, though he would return almost fifty years later with minor adjustments to the last song of the collection, the Serenade in B-flat. playing the collection--indeed the entire first-half of the program--from memory, richard-hamelin warms up with the contemplative Elegy in E-flat minor and thereafter hammers through the Prelude in C-sharp minor. now in full stride, his performance of the third fantasie was as concise as evocative. no one quite understands serenity as an active thing like rachmaninoff, a thing to be found while vertical (the trajectory that arrives at the Adagio sostenuto of his Piano Concerto #2 is one such example), richard-hamelin’s performance indicates he’s of the same mind. in the fifth and final piece of the set, the very danceable Serenade in B-flat minor, he was all thunderbolts and lighting, an excellent display of his quiet--though a bit shy--passion for the instrument.

L-R: Joel Link, Charles Richard-Hamelin, Camden Shaw and Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. Photo by James Ireland

L-R: Joel Link, Charles Richard-Hamelin, Camden Shaw and Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. Photo by James Ireland

the closing item on the program, brahms’s Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, whereby the piano replaces one of the violins in the usual quartet set-up. for this piece richard-hamelin was joined by three members of the Dover Quartet (joel link, milena pajaro-van de stadt and camden shaw) as perhaps an encore to a great Koerner Hall performance for the TSM festival on july 17th. the work is a bit of a marathon--the exposition of the first movement alone is replete with four themes--and with it the performers’ technical prowess is front and center. at a distance one can’t fail to notice that a piece of this complexity is possible only within the theatre of orchestral music, with all its attendant courtesies, musical theories and tempo markings. it is an intractable mosaic in sound, painted bright and vividly by richard-hamelin and company, in a flawless performance that one wouldn’t expect of an impromptu quartet. an excellent conclusion to yet another evening of beautiful chamber music hosted by the Toronto Summer Music Festival.

the Toronto Summer Music festival runs from july 11th to august 3rd.