By Anita Malhotra
Acclaimed Montreal based classical pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin first made his mark on the international music scene in 2014 when he won second and third prizes respectively at the Montreal International Musical Competition and Seoul International Music Competition.
The following year, his status as an important interpreter of Chopin was established when he was awarded the silver medal and Krystian Zimerman Prize at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world.
As a soloist, Richard-Hamelin has performed with major orchestras in Canada as well as with the Warsaw Philharmonic, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Korean Symphony Orchestra and Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM (Mexico).
He has also toured Japan six times and has appeared in many prestigious festivals around the world. In addition, he has recorded eight solo, concerto and chamber music albums featuring the music of Chopin and other composers, four of which were nominated for Juno Awards. His latest album, released in early April by Analekta, features Chopin’s 24 Preludes and Andante spianato and the Grande polonaise brillante.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Richard-Hamelin, who was at his home in Montreal, by phone on April 14, 2021.
AM: How did you go about preparing to record your most recent CD and why did you choose to record Chopin’s Preludes?
CRH: Since the competition, I’ve been learning a Chopin recital every season, especially because of my tours abroad. And usually when I play a certain program, I play it in concert over 50 times before recording it.
That was the plan, before the pandemic. I was about to play the Preludes as the second half of my recital program throughout 2020 and then record them in November and December.
That plan didn’t come to fruition, but we still held the recording dates. So instead of touring with the Preludes and gaining that experience on stage, I had time at home to work solo and in-depth.
That style of working brought me back to my student days, when you have a lot of time at the piano to study the score and recordings, and to seek help from people you trust. I think it was a good choice for these pieces, which need a very strong concept in order to work because they’re so short and condensed. From the very first note of each prelude you have to know exactly what you’re going for.
And why the Preludes? Basically, through the competition, I had the chance to record many CDs, many projects, with Analekta. My association with Chopin is pretty strong now, and I set a goal for myself a few years ago to play in concert and perhaps record the entire Chopin repertoire.
Slowly, but surely, I’ve been doing that, with the concertos and my very first CD, which had some of the late works, and now the Preludes. It’s a bit of a daunting task to work on the Preludes, especially since the discography is so big with those pieces. But at the same time, by now I have developed my vision, or a way of playing Chopin that’s my own, that I think remains true to what he wants.
AM: Could you say a few words about the Preludes?
CRH: What Chopin achieves is that you have the impression that these are very different pieces – very contrasting pieces. At the same time, you still feel by the time you get to the very last one that you’ve been through one story told in 24 different chapters. And some of the content is the most experimental Chopin gets. Like No. 16, which is like an etude, is really impressive and virtuosic. Or the “Raindrop” or No. 13 or 6 or 4 sound a bit more like his nocturnes.
But there are other ones like No. 14, 2 or 22, which are very violent and very dissonant and extreme. There’s something very disturbing about that music – jumping from one very tender moment to extreme violence in the next part. It’s a real trip through Chopin’s mind. And of course we know he wrote most of it in Mallorca on a very disastrous vacation with Georges Sand, with tuberculosis. And I think all of that is probably reflected in the music in some way.
AM: What were your earliest memories of music?
CRH: I’m a musician thanks to my dad. My father was an amateur pianist. When I was four, he gave me my first piano lessons. We had a very bad upright piano at home and he clumsily tried to teach me a few things. I remember the first piece he taught me was the Bach Minuet in G. That’s fairly difficult for a first piece without learning how to read music. After two or three weeks I was able to play it with only 15 minutes of practice every day, so he thought that I had some potential.
My cousin was studying with a teacher in Joliette – Paul Surdulescu, who’s a Romanian immigrant – and my dad went to him. I met him and he became my only teacher from age five to 18, which is pretty rare. So I think I owe most of what I do and what I am as a musician to him.
AM: How did you get to the level that you did so quickly?
CRH: I wouldn’t say it was quick, compared to today’s standards. When I was starting to be known it was because of the competition in Warsaw, but I was 26 at that point, and most people competing were about 19 or 20.
So I think the key to my version of success is patience and passion. I’ve always loved what I do. I never overworked myself when I was young, too. I had lots of time to play video games and have friends and waste time.
Only when I was 16 or 17 did I start to practice more hours every day because the music I was playing was getting more difficult.
I owe my first teacher a lot because he always assigned me pieces that were just enough of a challenge so that I could learn things but I could also play them well. And I did small competitions really early on. I was lucky – in Quebec we had many small regional competitions, so that prepared me to do my first international competitions when I was 24. It was a very steady climb up.
AM: As part of your studies, you did a Masters at Yale with the renowned Russian pianist Boris Berman. Did you ever consider staying in the US?
CRH: No. I had good fun there and the level was a lot stronger than what I had in Montreal, and that was good for me, but generally the US was a bit shocking when you’re from here. The differences of class and how poverty is everywhere, even in a prestigious school like Yale.
Before going to Yale, I was really comfortable in Montreal. Actually, it was more of a decision whether or not to live in Europe after the competition.
I could have chosen that route, but I’m a lot happier here. I’m very much a Québecois – very at home in my city in Montreal, with my girlfriend and my friends and everybody I know. I think it’s important in life to have a place you feel like it’s home.
AM: How did you go about preparing for the Chopin competition?
CRH: By 24, it was pretty late to start doing international competitions, but I felt ready and applied to a bunch of them and I got refused. So I gave up the really small ones. I went for bigger ones like the Montreal one and the Seoul one, and they accepted me and I went on to win prizes. And I think that gave me the courage to apply to such a big competition.
I was lucky in many ways because the Montreal competition that I won the year before gave me many recital opportunities throughout Quebec and Ontario, in series that were quite prestigious. I got to play Chopin recitals all through the summer before the actual competition and I played them in stressful environments.
By the time I went on stage in Warsaw, I had this advantage over younger kids who didn’t have that opportunity. And when I went there everything went like a dream. I was in Warsaw for a whole month and it was a really beautiful moment in my life.
AM: What was the experience of competing there like?
CRH: The hardest thing was the first round, actually. You had to play etudes, which are the hardest thing, and you go on that stage for the very first time. It’s a big deal, with cameras everywhere. The first couple of minutes it’s all panic mode, but usually what I do is I wait for the first thing that goes wrong. It can be a slight mistake, but sometimes it feels huge. By that time usually I tell myself, “Well, okay, that’s it. I’m out of the contest.”
And then I just start having fun and I pretend that I’m out and might as well just enjoy myself in this beautiful acoustic and piano and music. There was something very humbling about playing this music on that stage in that city. I tried to make it about Chopin – the history of the city, of this composer, of this competition. It’s much bigger than me, and taking me out of the equation made it a lot easier.
After my first round, the audience clapped for a minute and half when I was off stage, and that’s always a good sign. Then there were the reviews from journalists in Warsaw, and everybody was really positive about me. So with each further round I had more and more confidence, and that really helped for the finals, because the concerto I played was my first time playing it with a symphony orchestra.
So I really needed that courage and that innocence or naivete. If my future self had told me, “You know, if you win second prize you’ll get to travel the world and tour Japan many, many times,” I would have been unable to play a note. And I’ve lost that innocence now that I’ve played a lot and there are more expectations from me.
AM: What were the highlights of your touring after the competition and what were some of the challenges?
CRH: One huge highlight was I got to replace Pollini in a recital in Prague in June 2016 for the Prague Spring Festival, which was an amazing concert. My tours in Japan are one of the things I treasure most. I’m very grateful that the competition gave me this opportunity to develop fans over there.
I’ve toured six times in total. I’ve also been there just for fun with a few friends. It’s a place I really love. I love everything about it – the food, the people, nature, the cities. One of the things I am really sad about the pandemic is I missed a tour last year, and this year as well, as I was supposed to go in June. But I’m really looking forward to going back there.
The challenges were that early on, sometimes I would get offers that were impossible to refuse – prestigious things – but sometimes they were in the same week as other things I had agreed to.
Like one stretch of concerts, I remember, was hell. I had to play Brahms No. 1 with the Montreal Symphony in Quebec on a Friday. Saturday, I flew to Poland to do a full recital.
And then that night I slept maybe two hours and took two early flights to the south of France to play the Chopin No. 2 at noon and again in the evening for 2,000 people. So basically it was five days, three countries, two concertos, one recital and very little sleep, all of that being jet-lagged. That was a big ordeal and made me realize where my limits are.
AM: How many hours do you practice every day?
CRH: I always say between 0 and 8. During the pandemic it’s been between 0 and 9 or 10, because early on I didn’t practice for weeks because I could, and you usually can’t allow yourself to do that.
And then sometimes there’s a new piece I want to learn, and because of my obsession and because we were in lockdown I would basically do three hours, lunch, four hours, dinner, and then another three hours.
It was possible to just work all day like that. I think the key here is to practice well – being very concentrated and turning the phone off and really being in the moment, and practicing not just fast and mindlessly, but really aiming at the problem and being smart about it.
AM: You mentioned in one of your interviews that you were interested in cinema. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
CRH: When I was 16 or 17 I was not a movie buff at all but I saw Taxi Driver, the Scorcese movie with De Niro, and that blew my mind. It just really hit me at that point. I was kind of a lonely teen as well. It made me realize a bunch of things I never considered when you watch a movie, like editing and scoring. So it made me go deep into the filmography of the people involved in it.
And one film at a time I discovered a lot of things after that, like a snowball effect. Lately I’ve been watching Mike Leigh movies from British cinema and those have been really inspiring for me. So I guess it’s another passion of mine, and it’s a passion that works well with my lifestyle. There’s a lot of downtime when you travel so I can pass the time watching movies on my laptop and in the airplane or hotel rooms.
AM: What are some of your upcoming projects?
CRH: There are more recordings coming up – more planned projects with Analekta that I can’t really talk about, but are exciting to me.
These days it’s so hard to announce anything for live concerts. One thing that was really sad for my own life in the pandemic was that I was supposed to have my debut in London at Wigmore Hall in July. That was cancelled, of course, like everything else in those days.
So I hope that after I get fully vaccinated and we are past the worst of this period, I will have that chance again. So that’s my big hope for 2022 – that and going back to Japan. And more concerts in front of people. I did two of them in late March with Andrew Wan and it was so fun to play for people again.
And starting again in late May I have five dates in Montreal and some in Quebec City, and hopefully many festivals have dates in the fall in Europe, which almost all the time, if I do recitals, I will include the Preludes.
For more information about Charles Richard-Hamelin and his work, please visit charlesrichardhamelin.com or analekta.com.