At first blush, there couldn’t be a greater contrast. The man was unassuming. The artist
was sensational. The man was short. The artist was towering .The man mumbled at times.
The artist communicated with passion and clarity.
Charles Richard-Hamelin embodied both of these contradictory beings. When he first
ambled onto the stage, there was no intimation of the virtuosity that was about to emanate
from those fingers.
He walked to the mic and gave us an overview of the two Beethoven sonatas with which
he would open the program. A timid round of polite applause followed his words.
After the first sonata, he was no longer the same unprepossessing individual, and we were
no longer the same reserved group, waiting, hoping to be impressed. The applause was
immediate and enthusiastic. He walked to the mic to say more and had to wait. We were
not yet finished expressing our approval of a Beethoven sonata, one that most of us had
never heard before, presented with a rare beauty.
He accepted the adulation humbly. He then took us through his interpretation of the
Moonlight Sonata, not a romantic nighttime scene of moonbeams glinting on the ripples,
but an intense, brooding work more resonant of death. Then he sat at the piano and spoke
the same message, this time with minor arpeggios, frantic runs, and crashing chords. And
the Moonlight Sonata that we have heard so many times became an entirely different
piece, transformed by the vision of a profound thinker and the execution of a sublime
artist. And we believed.
He knew precisely what the music meant to him, and he had the talent to convey that
message clearly and with deep emotion. That genius was evident in the journey through
the twelve Chopin preludes, alternating major and minor keys, by turns sweet and angry,
deliberate and passionate. Each mood change came decisively, confidently, purely.
The performance was technically brilliant, but it never felt technical. It was all in service
of the mood, the meaning. And that is what captivated us. We were utterly quiet, not out
of polite discipline, but riveted by the performance.
Yet it seems as though performance is not the right word here. He shared with us—his
talent, his meaning, himself. There was no need for theatrics at the keyboard, no
excessive swaying, hands were not flung skyward at the end of a phrase. But anyone who
saw his face could not mistake the intensity, the commitment with which he engaged the
In the end no contradiction between the man and the artist remained. The man knew that
by being understated, the art could emerge unimpeded and create a magic that needed no
gratuitous adornment. The fingers were short, not the long, elegant fingers of the classic
pianist, but they could draw an exquisite beauty from the instrument they caressed. The
passion of the music revealed the soul of the man. Charles Richard-Hamelin—man and