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.