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Rafał Blechacz in Holding Pattern

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Debussy / Szymanowski, Sonata, R. Blechacz
(DG, 2012)
Rafał Blechacz's first visit to Washington, in 2010, confirmed the Polish pianist's gift for the music of Chopin. The jury and audience at the 2005 Chopin Competition in Warsaw were so impressed with his ability to play Chopin that he swept every prize, an achievement so remarkable that the jury decided not to award a second prize. Blechacz's return to Washington, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night, left similar impressions of considerable promise that, with each year that passes since the Warsaw win, hangs over the pianist's head, as of yet unfulfilled.

A Bach partita (no. 3, A minor, BWV 827) sounded quite like the Bach partita Blechacz played in 2010: a mechanical, brash, often clipped Fantasia and Courante, with more velvety, rubato-driven sounds in the Allemande and Sarabande, with some soft and suave voicing and little embellishments added on repeats. It was playing with a lot of facility -- ultra-fast on the last three dances -- that somehow ended up being mostly facile, at times even rushed due to what seemed like nervousness. In a Beethoven sonata (D major, op. 10/3) -- instead of Mozart in 2010 -- Blechacz also went for big contrasts, enjoying dramatic tempos and loud extremes, with a virtuosic edge that felt a lot like competition playing but did not exactly add up to compelling listening, again rushing past important formal moments. After a gloomy slow movement, it was the third movement that pleased most, an easy graceful minuet and especially the dancing left-hand crossings of the trio. The fourth movement, a comedy of Haydnesque fits and starts, was good fun, humorous episodes punctuated by chortles and giggles.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, Pianist Rafal Blechacz at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, April 29)

Elijah Ho, Rafal Blechacz digs into Chopin — and more (San Francisco Examiner, April 17)
The Chopin selections were less remarkable than what Blechacz played in 2010: a bombastic, four-square "Military" polonaise, followed by its companion polonaise from op. 40 (no. 2, C minor), with a turbulent, booming left hand that dominated. The third scherzo (C-sharp minor, op. 39) -- the same one played by Maurizio Pollini earlier this month -- was blistering and unyielding, the octaves always massive and solid, but the slow section, with its cascading treble figures, went by too quickly, except for its minor iteration, which was slow and tragic, followed by an astounding technical finish in the coda. Chopin was paired with the music of another Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski, the youthful, brash, unfocused sonata (C minor, op. 8) that Blechacz has also championed on his most recent recording for Deutsche Grammophon. He played this demanding, over-the-top score with great technical accomplishment, a work that is itself about excess, torment, impetuosity on some level, especially the first movement, which is the best part. The second movement has its own tempestuous moments, but the third is a sickly-sweet Menuetto, followed by a fourth movement that is introduced by a slow section redolent of Debussy. The influence of Liszt is felt in the closing Fugue, not a particularly memorable one, it has to be said, but played here with plenty of bluster. A Chopin encore brought out some of Blechacz's playing, the melancholy A minor waltz (op. 34/2) and the briefest of preludes (A major, op. 28/7), a strange way to end a largely puzzling recital.

The next not-to-miss event on the WPAS schedule is a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra on Wednesday (May 1, 8 pm), with new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and violinist Hilary Hahn, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program combines Korngold's sweet violin concerto and Bruckner's seventh symphony.

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