Sep 8th 2019

Well worth a detour: this fresh reading  of Chopin’s two piano concertos

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

Chopin’s two piano concertos are among the most frequently recorded of 19th century works, both for their melodic charm, their pulsing rhythms and their historical significance. Young Chopin wrote the piano part with exceptional verve, showing the way for future composers to let the piano burst free from its orchestral surroundings.

Many of the great pianists have grappled with these great pieces, often not quite settling down with the conductor and orchestra. Harshest criticism has rejected Ivo Pogorelich’s 2003 version and Artur Rubenstein doesn’t fare much better, trying to outplay the New Symphony Orchestra of London.

Some consensus has emerged for outstanding performances by Maria Joäo Pires (1992) with André Previn’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Martha Argerich’s 1998 recording with Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM).

Now comes a new entry what deserves a detour – the underestimated Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin (no relation to fellow Canadian Marc-André Hamelin) and the highly praised Kent Nagano conducting the OSM.

Richard-Hamelin has a reasonable profile in Canada and somewhat lesser name in France but in the international piano world he struggles to be recognized despite his many decorations. He was silver medalist in the 2015 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, after all.

MJ_Kent_Nagano
Kent Nagano by the author Michael Johnson 

 

I for one was eager to hear him under the exacting leadership of Nagano, music director of the Montréal orchestra. Their new CD under the Analektra label is riveting, especially the memorably performed Larghetto of the No. 1.  Music historians have long speculated that this movement, named a “Romance” by Chopin, it is a ten-minute love song to his close association with Konstancja Gladkowska. 

And it set new standards for letting the pianist express himself. As Alan Walker writes in his new biography Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, “Nothing prepares us for the kaleidoscopic range of color that emerges from the keyboard as the Romance unfolds…” Walker asserts that there was no precedent anywhere in the known works for piano and orchestra.

Nagano and Richard-Hamelin exceed themselves in producing what Chopin was striving for, a feeling of  “calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently toward a spot which calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight of a beautiful spring evening.”

Richard-Hamelin seems at ease with the musical and technical challenges of both these concertos, the virtuoso turns, the sensitive emotions and the dialogue with Nagano’s players. He and Nagano are tightly synchronized. 

Just 30 years old, Richard-Hamelin produced his first solo recording only four years ago and has since recorded three other CDs featuring works by Beethoven, Chopin and George Enescu.

I once asked Nagano how he manages to produce such clarity from his section players. He said it is simple. “We take it a measure at a time, we try variations until it sounds perfect, then we put it all together.” He has earned his reputation as a tough taskmaster.

 

END

 


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