Sorry to Be a Dissenting Voice

ItalyItaly  Bach, Beethoven, Chopin.  Rafal Blechacz (piano)  Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome, 22.4.2015. (JB)

It pains me to be a dissenting  voice on the performance of a presumed, promising young performer.  Rafal Blechacz is thirty; he won the 2005 Warsaw Chopin Competition which gave him concerts in some of Europe’s key venues and a DGG recording contract.  However, when I saw the shaking heads and looks of dismay on the faces of my colleagues in the Italian music press, I saw that I was not alone in my disappointment.

His programme opened with Bach’s Italian Concerto.  Very promising it was too.  He makes no attempt to make the modern Steinway sound like any earlier keyboard instrument.  And that is fine by me.  Moreover, there was a crystal clarity to all three movements with some aggression in parts but I found it an attractive aggression. His approach does something for Bach’s inherent drama –a quality often overlooked in this music.   Even more expressive was the clarity of the voices of Bach’s counterpoint.  –Not just a near perfect balance of hands, but of exchanges of tone between fingers.  All very hopeful for what was to come.

But serious trouble kicked in for the Beethoven Pathétique sonata.  There were scarcely two consecutive bars which were played at the same speed.  Some rubato should certainly be allowed in this early, dark sonata.  But this sounded more like a shipwreck.  The pianist seemed hell-bent on torpedoing his own chaotic misshaping of Beethoven’s musical architecture.

What troubles me in reporting this, is a definite feeling I had of Mr Blechacz being in possession of some musical intelligence and imagination.  But these qualities were firmly trapped inside him,  seemingly, unable to get out.  It was as though some teacher had said This is the way you play this piece; now imitate what I have shown you.  That is not far from Mr Squeers’s famous, W-I-N-D-E-R-S spells windows; now clean’em.  No wonder the boy stumbles through the piece rather than playing it.

The second part of the programme was all Chopin.  Now he will surely come into his own.  He’s Polish to boot.  Not a bit of it.

The Nocturne op62 no2 sounded like false teeth being rattled in a glass.  Three waltzes Op 64 might have been publicity for pills for sea-sickness –exaggerated dynamics and unmusical jerks of tempi, sliced up all three until they were unrecognisable.   Simple, unadorned charm is the key to the waltzes.  But that takes more courage and wit than Blechacz seems able to muster.  At least on tonight’s showing.

The rhythmic unsteadiness of the Beethoven was at the fore again in the destruction of three mazurkas op.56.  Polish pianists are proud of their musical heritage.  And nowhere so much as  in the mazurkas.  But once again, these were all over the place.  Is this, I wondered, offered as some kind of new reading of familiar musical territory?  Unfortunately it comes across as a massacre.

The evening whispered to a close with the F sharp minor Polonaise Op 44.  But where Chopin weaves magic, Rafal Blechacz stirs ditchwater.  Parody time?  I’m out of patience.  Sod the fellow.

Jack Buckley

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