In October, Canadian pianism shocked the world when two of our artists placed among the top five laureates at the prestigious 17th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, one of the premiere piano competitions in the world. Tony Yike Yang, at just 16, placed fifth – the youngest laureate in the competition's history – and Quebec's Charles Richard-Hamelin won the silver medal. All of a sudden, in one day, a new generation of Canadian pianists announced to the world that we can grow world-class virtuosos in this country as well as any other.
Fitting then, that it was an all-Chopin program that brought Tony Yang and Charles Richard-Hamelin to Mazzoleni Hall at the Royal Conservatory Friday night for a joint recital. Fitting as well, because Tony Yang is proud alumnus of the Conservatory's Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists, and Charles Richard-Hamelin noted that it was in Mazzoleni Hall that he won one of the first piano prizes he was ever awarded, at a Toronto Symphony Piano Competition. It was a homecoming of sorts for both Chopin prizewinners.
Yang occupied the first half of the evening with an ambitious program that included the Barcarolle, the second Impromptu, the Third Scherzo and the B flat minor Sonata. It was a treat to see the still-young (now 17) Yang attack the Mazzoleni Hall Steinway, and to remember there was a time when we all were teenagers with a world ahead of us (even if she were not a fraction as accomplished as Tony Yang). Yang has technique to burn, but he often wisely reduced its power to place it in the service of line, phrase, harmony and texture – the real sinews of music. Tony is young, so he doesn't yet always tease out the subtleties in Chopin – one of the most subtle composers we have. Often a beauty of harmony, or an inner voicing was ignored when it might have been exploited, buried instead in the youthful rush of sound that is Yang's strength, He was at his best, I thought, in the Scherzo, where the drama of the piece is right on the surface, and Yang made spectacular work of it. Silvery runs alternated with powerful octaves to present a starkly contrasted, and powerfully structured work.
If Tony Yang is more a powerhouse at the piano. Charles Richard-Hamelin is more a poet. Richard-Hamelin is a good ten years older than Tony Yang, and more advanced in his career, so it's not entirely fair to compare them, but Hamelin approaches his Chopin with a quite different sensibility. Chopin is one of those composers where familiarity breeds not contempt, but convention, so we've stopped hearing, if we ever did, how radical a composer Chopin actually is. His sense of time, his sense of harmony, above all his structural originalities are immensely sophisticated and daring. Richard-Hamelin seemed to be aware of the total Chopin – not just melting us with liquid line after liquid line of Chopin's famous melodies, but exposing inner voices and harmonic twists in both left and right hands, and illuminating Chopin's extraordinary structural gambits, especially in his Third Sonata which closed the program. Richard-Hamelin won the Krystian Zimmerman prize at the Chopin Competition for best sonata performance, although I'm not sure for which sonata, but his Third was breathtaking. At the end of a very long program of Chopin, Hamelin entranced his audience with the soft languor of his playing at one moment, passage-work that was always musical at another, bravura playing at yet another. He is an artist firmly on a unique and original path.
It's a path Tony Yang may yet travel as well as he adds a few more years to his resume. He gave a fine recital on Friday. For Charles Richard-Hamelin, though, at least this reviewer left Mazzoleni Hall figuring either he got robbed in Warsaw, or else Seong Jin-Cho, the gold medalist, is one hell of a player.
Editor's note: Tony Yang is an alumnus of the Conservatory's Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.