in: Reviews

April 13, 2018

Polish Pianist Plays Beyond the Physical

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Making his Celebrity Series debut, Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz sold out Longy’s Pickman Hall Wednesday. For the first half, his selections from Mozart and Beethoven, towers of tonality, gravitated to the key of A in both minor and major, Blechacz asserting their aesthetic personalities. After intermission, Blechacz continued pursuing personalities, now Schumann and Chopin.

Born in 1985 in Makol nad Notecia, Blechacz started playing piano at the age of five, and by 20 had won all five first prizes at the 15th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the first to achieve such a feat. Several years later, he graduated from the Academy of Music Bydgoszca. In 2016 he took a sabbatical from the stage to complete a PhD in philosophy of music. Curiosity was piqued: why pursue doctoral studies with a concert career imminent, and how did those studies inform this young artist?

With Mozart, the Rondo K.511 and the Sonata K.310, one could see a body absorbed in that perfection of classical architecture we have come to know. The focused Blechacz hardly moved, directing all thought to something beyond the physical. With Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 101, protean actions from the pianist formed outward display, although only to a limited extent.

His physicality in Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 became visible with the technical demands of one of the most devilish of pieces in the repertoire. Blechacz’s prowess, which is of extraordinary magnitude, voiced the composer’s inexorable motivic predilection to magnificent execution. It was not until Chopin, the Opus 24 Mazurkas, where rubato visibly flexed with the phrases. Chopin felt at home with the musician, as detail after detail surfaced, yet as beautiful as they all were, following them grew somewhat overwhelming. In the Polonaise in A-flat Major, Belchacz appeared to break free, in old-fashioned blockbuster playing, arms flying off the Steinway loftily. The dance thundered through and through with Polish nobleness.

At the opening of his debut recital, Rafał Blechacz went directly—almost—from Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor to the Sonata in A Minor. For some reason, from packed Pickman came a tiny attempt at applause for the Rondo, making for a slightly awkward moment, the prizewinner not sure whether to stand or sit and move on. If there was sublimity in the Mozart performances, it escaped this listener. Not magical either, it did possess eloquence. Along with interior fussiness in each piece, Blechacz thoroughly keyed in on crystalline clarity. The childlike crisp staccato cleared of pedaling breathed space in the second theme of the Sonata’s Andante.

Beethoven’s Opus 101 first flickered with poetic promises, but with the marching movement it sped full throttle. Blechacz offered exacting contrapuntal weaving, dissonance shaping, and astonishing cadence vigilance, all as from no other interpretation I have heard. He fired up Beethoven’s dotted rhythms incredibly so. Was that from just one pianist?

Yet again the pianist’s lyricism glanced too often at Steinway luxuriousness in the slow movement. The more complex final movement took the piano as an orchestral idea to new heights, treble to bass exploding with grand power.

With the encore, one had to think back to the opening key of this 33-year-old PhD’s program. Rafal Blechacz’s tempo for Brahms’s A-major Intermezzo provided uplift, yet the forte and piano markings for both the climactic points and the lyrical passages overstretched.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net

3 Comments

  1. I like the description “cadence vigilance” for what he did in the final movement of the Beethoven and found it equally astonishing. In the Mozart, I couldn’t help thinking that this might have been the way Chopin would have played it.

    Comment by Leon Golub — April 14, 2018 at 8:15 am

  2. Most of this review was opaque to me, but this much was clear: “If there was sublimity in the Mozart performances, it escaped this listener.” Not this one. In the opening Rondo, Blechacz achieved the seemingly impossible task of playing with both exactitude, and with a sense of rootless improvisation, turning the work into a kind of imprisoned fantasy. I am used to noticing anticipations of Beethoven in Mozart, but not often of the late Beethoven, who improvises structure as others improvise melody, who seems to invent an entire language for the sake of a felicitous phrase. Perhaps it was knowledge of what was coming later in the program, but Blechacz’s playing of the Rondo reminded me at times of certain passages in the late Beethoven sonatas, or the Diabelli Variations.

    This is because of Mozart, not Blechacz, but Blechacz understood what is in the work, and played it with the seriousness and care it requires. A piece called “Rondo” that opens a program might go unnoticed, but the Rondo in A Minor is one of Mozart’s greatest works. A tension between the strict discipline of structure and natural, free invention is characteristic of Mozart’s work, and no piece realizes this ideal more completely than this one, which I am tempted to call “Rondo quasi una fantasia”. It is sublime, and this performance of it was sublime.

    Comment by SamW — April 14, 2018 at 9:47 am

  3. I really like Leon Golub’s comment about Blechacz playing Mozart the way Chopin might have. Chopin was the most Classical of the Romantics. There is a famous remark about rubato, that the right hand is allowed great freedom, but the left must keep the strictest time, that you may associate with either Mozart or with Chopin; in both cases you would be right, because they both said almost exactly the same thing.

    Comment by SamW — April 14, 2018 at 10:01 am

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