Charles Richard-Hamelin and Andrew Wan: This high-powered duet tackles Beethoven sonatas in Concert by the Canal

Here’s how music gets made: Last summer the soaring young Canadian classical keyboard star Charles Richard-Hamelin performed a Brahms piano concerto at the Lanaudiere Festival with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Seated right beside Richard-Hamelin was the MSO’s concertmaster Andrew Wan. It was a memorable evening, Wan said.

“I was blown away. I thought it was really honest music making. Everything he did made musical sense to me. I’m impressed by anyone who can get up on stage and play a concerto,” Wan said.

That impression sparked an idea and the idea sparked a phone call, Richard-Hamelin said.

“Of course I have heard him (Wan) play in concerts before and I was honoured he was interested in playing with me.”

Charles Richard-Hamelin. Photo: Elizabeth Delage

Richard-Hamelin was invited to take part in a concert for MSO patrons along with Wan and some other principals from the orchestra. That went well and the two decided to set aside some time from their busy schedules to plan something bigger.

The idea of playing and then recording all 10 Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano came from Richard-Hamelin.

The two are both on the Analekta label. They put the idea to Analekta and they were equally enthused.

So over the next few years, Wan and Richard-Hamelin will record the sonatas. They will also perform them in concerts, the very first of which will be a unique appearance this Saturday in the Concerts by the Canal series at Southminster United Church.

“This is a repertoire that I love very much,” Richard-Hamelin said. “There are 10 of them which is a lot and a lot of them we don’t hear except when they are played as part of a cycle.” On Dec. 2, “We are starting with the Opus 30 sonatas, Nos. 6, 7, 8. We hear No. 7 a lot and No. 8 is often played by students but No. 6 is not played so much. It’s fantastic.”

Andrew wan. Photo courtesy Montreal Symphony Orchestra

For Wan, “these three sonatas we chose are very different even though grouped together chronologically. They showcase a wide variety of emotion within the movements not just over the three sonatas.”

By 2020, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, the duo expect to have a box set of sonatas to offer listeners.

For Richard-Hamelin, there is “something very grounded in Beethoven’s music. It is very formally perfect and it is always nice to come back to it.

“I like especially the sonatas. He was one of the first to put violin and piano on the same level. And … there is a perfection to the music that is unlike anything else. It’s like Bach. It’s always good to return to the great masters.”

He also plays Chopin a lot, especially since his second place finish in the 2015 competition in Warsaw, a win that launched him fully onto the international stage. And that creates an interesting conundrum.

“It’s really hard to go back to back with Chopin to Beethoven. It reminds me of a quote by Sviatoslav Richter. He said he wouldn’t ever program Beethoven and Chopin in same recital because it’s like painting with oil and water. They don’t mix.

“There is something very grounded in Beethoven and there is a lot more up in the air with Chopin so … I need some time in between.

For Wan, Beethoven is equally important.

“Just two weeks ago I played a Beethoven concerto with the Edmonton Symphony where I am an artistic partner.

“It’s a humbling experience. On the page you aren’t going to have virtuosic pyrotechnics that you are going to have with Sibelius. It’s more sparse but there is a lot of depth there. A bad reading of Beethoven is probably one of the most embarrassing things you can do because it can sound rather square like you don’t care.

“It’s test of endurance, expression and not to be taken lightly.”

Both Wan and Richard-Hamelin have very busy music careers. Wan with the MSO and various other assignments across Canada and in the U.S. (He was in Houston working with the Houston Symphony on the day of this interview).

Richard-Hamelin is playing concerts around the world.

“This year alone, it’s almost 100 dates,” he says “It’s a lot of travelling. For example, in July I went to Singapore to play one concert and then I came back to Montreal. It’s a little insane I know but I figure now is the time to do it.”

Both players have chamber music on their resumes. Wan performs with the New Orford Strong Quartet, for example. Richard-Hamelin, before his win in Warsaw, was regulalrly involved in chamber work, including a stint with the Hochelaga Trio.

So both players know all about the need for give and take.

Richard-Hamelin says he has had experiences when the connection “is not as intense and in those cases it can be very frustrating because you are sort of giving away more than receiving.”

But with Wan, he says, the connection was there from the start.

“We are both prepared and experienced players in our own right. It was so easy and fun it felt like we had been playing these sonatas together for many years.”

Wan taught Richard-Hamelin when the latter was a young student at McGill University.

“He is one of the few musicians I know who can play large without covering. You don’t want to play with a pianist who is tiptoeing around all the time either. He rides the fine balance beautifully.

“I pride myself in having a multi-faceted career.

“Being concert master (at the MSO) is important to me and has informed a lot of my musical tastes. … I also teach at McGill and have taught many of these pieces. And I have become much more convinced about how to play them.

“I also play in the New Orford String Quartet and do some solo work. That’s very valuable.”

All his accumulated experience has given him the confidence to tackle the project now, he added.

“Ten years ago, maybe, I would never have dared to record these pieces.”

Beethoven on Record
Charles Richard-Hamelin, piano; Andrew Wan, violin
Concerts by the Canal
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

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.