Chamberfest: Musical variety is spice of life for Charles Richard-Hamelin

Charles Richard-Hamelin. Photo: Elizabeth Delage

Charles Richard-Hamelin has built an international reputation as a solo pianist but he’s not a one-dimensional musician.

The young Quebecer splashed onto the world scene when he won the silver medal and the Krystian Zimerman prize at the 17th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. More awards and accolafes have followed. On Tuesday he was nominated for a JUNO award in the Classical album of the year: Large ensemble category for the album Chopin: Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Analekta) recorded with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under the direction of Kent Nagano.

But he’s also an avid chamber musician and will be showing those chops on Feb. 3 in a Chamberfest concert. He will be playing Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 with the Apollon Musagète Quartet. The Polish ensemble will be making its Ottawa debut that night as well.

Chamber music “is a very important part of my musical life that I don’t get to do that much since the (Chopin) competition,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“I have been playing a lot of Chopin and he didn’t do much chamber music.”

He’s worked with Apollon before. They were put together four years ago in a summer festival in Warsaw when they performed the Shostakovich piano quintet once. And it clicked right away.

And now they been reunited for a tour of the U.S. and the upcoming concert in Ottawa.

Such spontaneous performances don’t always work, he says.

“Sometimes you are matched with players or conductors who you might respect on the outside but when you play with them you don’t feel the music in the same way. But it’s always a good sign when you rehearse and you don’t have to say too much. A lot of things are going on and everyone is listening in real time.

“The best case scenario in chamber music is when the best idea wins and you learn to let go of your ego and your preconceptions and are willing to learn, adapt and compromise.”

When people are prepared it goes well, he said, but when you are paired with a more “eccentric” personality that can become more complicated.

He has played Dvořák’s Piano Quintet for a number of years. It’s a very popular piece. he has even played it with a wind quintet.

The Dvořák is one of the five most popular piano quintets, he said, along with ones by Brahms, Schumann, Shostakovich and Franck.

“The piece is in the core of the repertoire. one of the things that I find particularly attractive is that it is more of a chamber piece.” In his opinion it doesn’t have the symphonic pretensions of the quintet by Brahms.

“It’s lighter fare. It’s very sunny, not overly dramatic and it’s also very folk inspired.” he feels the highlight of the piece is the slow movement or the Dumka,” he said.”It is very soulful music.”

The appeal for Richard-Hamelin of the chamber form is simply that the music “written for that is some of the best. I think, for example, Brahms’ very best music” is in the chamber forms. “You miss out on amazing music if you don’t explore chamber music.”

Nowadays, in a more practical sense, there are few pianists who can make a living of solo performance alone or one style alone. “To make it, you have to do a bit of everything. And that’s great because everything informs everything.”

For example, he and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Andrew Wan, have explored all Beethoven’s piano-violin sonatas over the course of the past few years. They will be recording the last sonatas in May and will release all the sonatas in December in a box set around the 250th anniversary of the composers birth on Dec. 16.

“This really informed how I have informed the piano concertos and sonatas. Same for Brahms. There is something about the writing of each composer for the piano and how that evolves over time.”

In solo music, textures from chamber music will be helpful. “If you don’t have this in your mind you can miss out on a lot of imagination that can inform how you play. Without imagination, the piano sound can be rather bland.” You learn the DNA of a composer.

He also mentions — and laments — the disappearance of chamber music festivals as one reason why he doesn’t play as much chamber music as he would like.

“I’m very grateful that the Chamberfest is having me play again.”

He says the opportunity to play chamber music is a useful outlet for musicians who don’t often get the opportunity to express themselves inside the much larger unit of a symphony orchestra.

Finally, the life of a soloist can be a lonely one on the road, he said, and the simple pleasure of making music and sharing time with some mates is important.

He’s got another CD coming out this week also on Analekta of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos 22 and 24 with Les Violons Du Roy conducted by Jonathan Cohen.

“When you do a recording, you do ask yourself why am I doing this? I feel when I do a project it comes from a place where I feel that I have something to say about the music that is my own and to bring something different about a composer” to the fore.

He said No. 24 is a new one to him, but he has played No. 22 quite a bit. He finds the connections between the two pieces are interesting. “In both pieces, there is a lot of room to add ornamentation and a personal touch. It’s nice to customize a little bit.”

While CD sales have slipped Analekta is very active on streaming platforms and trying to get classical recordings on playlists of a country. That can mean shorter tracks but “if you do get on these playlists your music will be heard in hotels and cafes in that (nation).” There’s isn’t much money for the performers, he said, so “it’s a sad situation really but” every click counts these days.

Chamberfest presents Charles Richard-Hamelin and the Apollon Musagète Quartet
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.