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Mr. Blechacz Comes to Washington

Rafał Blechacz:
available at Amazon
Chopin Preludes

DG 477 6592

available at Amazon
Chopin Piano Concertos

DG 477 8088

available at Amazon
Haydn / Mozart / Beethoven

DG 477 7453

Online scores:
Chopin's First Editions Online
Rafał Blechacz will be making his Washington recital debut later this month (February 27, 2 pm) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Washington Performing Arts Society's Hayes Series (sold out, so contact WPAS directly to inquire about cancellations). Blechacz did the unthinkable a few years ago, hitting a grand slam at the 15th International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the first Pole to win since Krystian Zimerman in 1975. (Blechacz wrote recently that Krystian Zimerman sent his congratulations after the competition: they have since met and Zimerman has become a mentor.) So it was clear that the young man, not yet 25, can play Chopin, something that has been confirmed by two of the releases that have followed upon his new contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Indeed, the Chopin portion of his Washington recital will likely be one of the highlights of the Chopin Year, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth -- supposedly today, according to a baptismal certificate (the composer maintained that he was born on March 1).

Blechacz's first recording for DG was a knockout version of Chopin's op. 28 set of Preludes. By comparison to the recording latest in my ears, that of Alexandre Tharaud (sampled both live and on disc), Blechacz does not emphasize the "violence and death" aspect of the pieces in Chopin's imagination, on that fateful trip to Majorca where he composed most of the pieces. Blechacz is much sweeter overall, as if the thought of death has not really affected the inner mind, with his take on no. 24, for example, not permeated with Tharaud's dread and finality. Although some of Blechacz's tempi are really fast, at 39:04 he takes about a minute longer than Tharaud, seemingly not afraid to linger over gentle moments or milk the slower pieces.

Not that he allows the music to drag or become overly sentimental, even the famous no. 15 ("Raindrop"), which opens light as mist and drizzle and moves into a middle section that is among the more threatening and violent interpretations. His technique is stunningly sure-handed, the only area where Tharaud sometimes falls short, the most demanding pieces (nos. 10, 12, 16, 22) are breath-taking. Occasionally, as in nos. 3 and 8, there is a less pleasing, sharp-fingered quality, where you hear a lot of the individual notes rather than a cascade. It can be a nice effect but it makes some of his playing a little fussy and mannered, heard also in his Beethoven and reminding me of András Schiff. Blechacz supplements the op. 28 set with two extra preludes (A♭, op. posth.; op. 45) and the two nocturnes of op. 62.

Most recently Blechacz released a recording of both Chopin concertos with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The second concerto is generally my favorite, heard earlier this season played masterfully by Evgeny Kissin with the NSO, and Blechacz's performance of it is the more satisfying of the two. In the first, another performance of which you can watch on YouTube (1st mvt | 2nd mvt | 3rd mvt -- plus a bonanza of other videos) from (I think) his performance at the Chopin competition, the sense of ensemble between pianist and orchestra is less sure. Blechacz teeters close to being too saccharine in the gorgeous, but potentially tooth-rotting, middle movements, but is at his best in the outer movements, of which he notes in his comments on the concertos (see video embedded below) Chopin's use of Polish folk idioms. These are good performances, not least because they feature the glowing sound of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but my suspicion is that Blechacz will make better recordings of these concertos when he is older.

The first half of Blechacz's Washington recital is devoted to Bach (the first partita), Mozart (K. 570 sonata), and Debussy (Pour le piano). For a taste of how he plays the Classical composers, there is a third disc from Deutsche Grammophon, of three sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Blechacz noted in one of his liner essays the following observation: "But my view of Chopin was enriched by performing the music of other composers, especially Bach, the three great Viennese Classical composers and Debussy, for whom the control of color and molding of the sound are so essential." The best of the three sonatas he recorded is Haydn's final piano sonata (Xob. XVI:52, E♭ major), from 1794, where his tendency toward a light, almost superficial touch suits the Rococo filigree passages. As noted above, his performance of Beethoven's op. 2, no. 2 is akin to the way Schiff plays Beethoven, a little too clipped at times for my taste. The Mozart, K. 311, falls somewhere between the Haydn and Beethoven. It is clear from what he has already accomplished, primarily as an interpreter of the music of Chopin, that Blechacz is a pianist to watch, and his recital this Saturday should be a high priority for piano enthusiasts.


Greg C. said...

Pronounced how, bleh-HOTS?

Citrine said...

Greg C.
It's "Ble-HAH-ch" :)