Review: Charles Richard-Hamelin offers a glorious Mozart in Southam Hall

Charles Richard-Hamelin is arguably the best and most complete pianist under the age of 30 in Canada. He combines monster virtuosity with keen intelligence and exceptionally sensitive, imaginative musicality. His headline-making silver medal at the 2015 Chopin competition in Warsaw certainly boosted his career, but unlike some big international prize winners, he hasn’t burned out early. His work ethic and consistency have allowed him to maintain the momentum.

On Wednesday, Richard-Hamelin played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with NACO, under the guest baton of Carlo Rizzi. This excitable Italian conducts with enthusiasm, grace, and beautifully clear technique. He doesn’t over-intellectualize the music, but gives everything a narrative, a sense of dance, and an emotional immediacy that reflect his impeccable opera house credentials.

To date, I’ve mostly heard Richard-Hamelin in big Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire. His Mozart was glorious: supple, winsome, warmly lit from within, delicate but never feeble. He plays the concerto as if it were chamber music, focusing on minute detail and counterpoint, always listening to the orchestra. There’s a moment toward the end of the second movement where the left hand of the piano engages in a little back-and-forth conversation of staccato arpeggios with the bassoon. I’ve rarely heard it so perfectly executed. Richard-Hamelin played his own delightful cadenza at the end of the first movement. The last movement was a puckish frolick.

After such a brilliant but subtle performance, only a few patrons leapt to their feet, eventually coaxing others to follow. Fortunately it was enough to persuade Richard-Hamelin to play an encore: Alfred Cortot’s solemn, reverent solo piano transcription of the slow movement from Bach’s F Minor keyboard concerto.

Before the Mozart, Rossini’s William Tell Overture gave individual NACO members plenty of opportunities to shine. In particular, Rachel Mercer’s doleful opening cello solo rippled with luxe, bel canto phrasing.

NACO has been plowing through some enormous, demanding works lately, and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathéthique” Symphony No. 6 didn’t give them a break. Rizzi brought out the symphony’s operatic sense of despair and finality. A nearly opaque fog of gloom rose in the opening notes, rooted in Chris Millard’s sepulchral bassoon solos.

The conductor took the second movement at a livelier pace than most, making the amorous melodic line flow much more coherently over the awkward 5/4 time signature. But RIzzi really upped the tempo in the third movement, putting the “molto” in molto vivace. No pompous military march this; the daredevil velocity could be interpreted either as self-destruction or a last frantic scrabbling at life. The first violins and violas responded with positively breakneck playing glavanized by the stellar trombone and trumpet sections.

Applause broke the spell before the desolate fourth movement. The conductor seemed mildly annoyed. I feel for him, but I’ve always thought that if it’s that important, a simple word from the podium before the music starts can prevent unwanted interruptions. Nobody likes to feel scolded; it just turns people off classical concerts. A little audience interaction can go a long way to making everyone comfortable with the ground rules.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.