Rafal Blechacz talks to Geoffrey Newman

Rafal Blechacz © Marco Borggreve

Few pianists have won the Warsaw Chopin Competition as resoundingly as Rafal Blechacz did in 2005, and it is a natural tendency to identify the pianist with Chopin. As a recent interview with Tchaikovsky Competition winner Barry Douglas revealed (relaying the advice of Van Cliburn no less), the biggest mistake a competition winner can make is to continue to play pieces that everybody wants them to play and not explore new repertoire. While Blechacz’s early Deutsche Grammophon recordings were of Chopin (with some Debussy and Szymanowski), his latest CD (February 2017) is entirely devoted to Bach, and his concert explorations now run the full gamut, from Mozart through Beethoven and Schumann to Brahms. It’s a productive development, and this brief interview attempts to give insight into it. The pianist received the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award in 2014.

One thing that struck me immediately in talking with Blechacz is how considered and philosophical an artist he is – not surprising, since he is completing his doctorate in Philosophy. Also, how much he has in common with Krystian Zimerman, his friend and celebrated countryman, in terms of thinking about piano performance. Since this interview took place right after his fine recital at the twentieth anniversary gala of the Vancouver Chopin Society, an interesting opportunity presented itself: the possibility of comparing the artist’s professed approach to the works presented at the concert with what I perceived (review).

Geoffrey Newman: Some pianists might regard performing Chopin as a specialty all to itself, but others find important links to previous masters. What’s your viewpoint?

Rafal Blechacz: I would say that especially in Chopin’s early compositions, we hear a lot of connection with Mozart’s music, especially concerning the form. For example, the concertos and the sonatas are very classical in form, even if romantic in spirit. We also know that Chopin loved operas by Mozart, and it was a huge inspiration for him, especially when he was composing beautiful bel canto melodies. And there is the influence of Bach too, especially in the later Polonaise-Fantaisie. I find a lot of polyphony in Chopin.

GN: You obviously have a great love of Beethoven, which showed in the Sonata Op.101 you played. What’s your perspective on this composer, and on this work in particular?

RB: Beethoven is special for me. I played Beethoven sonatas when I was young, and it would be one of my dreams to record all 32 sonatas. The Sonata Op.101 is a tough work; it’s not so classical, and the first movement is quite slow. I wanted to present it during this concert season because it contains a lot of polyphony, and I love Bach. I definitely see a lot of similarities between Bach’s music and that of late Beethoven. The last movement is amazing: it is a long four-voiced fugue, and I wanted to find a special color for each voice. There are also some interesting imitation phrases in the first movement, and even more in the second, where they occur in each voice and you can show the same rhythm at piano, then forte in a different voice, alternating colours selectively. So there are a lot of options to create interesting expression and colour. But colour is only one thing; you must really understand the logic of this piece too.

GN: It is intriguing how much of your perspective gravitates back to Bach. How do you explain this?

RB: It’s simple, my story of music started with the organ. I wanted to be an organist originally, and I played a lot of Bach.

GN: Are you eventually going to record some Beethoven?

RB: It is a few years away, but there is a plan to record all the Beethoven concertos with Trevor Pinnock and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Trevor has an extensive Baroque background, but we played Beethoven together, and it went so well that we decided we had to record it. We also did a Chopin concerto, and it went well too – really amazing! I like to work with him because, for me, everything started with Baroque music. I also have a good relationship with the orchestra.

GN: So, on to the Mozart Sonata K310 that you performed. I noticed the large expressive scale you set for the piece, and particularly the emphasis on the left-hand ostinato at the beginning. What’s your perspective?

RB: I agree – the way I performed it is atypical. I wanted to have a bigger left hand. I wanted to be a little bit different because, for me, it’s an atypical sonata. It’s not so joyful and optimistic like other Mozart sonatas. There is a lot of drama in this music. But it’s beautiful that each interpretation can be so different.

GN: Do you think there are links between the Chopin Mazurkas and the Brahms Intermezzo we heard?

RB: The Mazurkas are intimate works, and I’m playing from my heart. There are a lot of melancholy phrases, lots of sorrow and suffering. Brahms is quite similar: the Intermezzo is a wonderful, warm piece. Of course, when I play the Chopin Polonaise, I feel very proud. It’s a majestic, heroic piece.

GN: You have mentored with Krystian Zimerman since you won the Chopin Competition in 2005. What exactly do you think he has taught you?

RB: I know Krystian Zimerman well, and this contact has been a big inspiration for me. He told me that the most important thing in interpretation is to be natural. You must hear your own intuition, your own heart. That’s the key to developing an individual feel for a piece. Of course, we talked about interpreting specific works and tone production. We actually talked a lot about the intonation of the hammers, and how to match the intonation to the repertoire. But we mainly played on the Hamburg Steinway, and it’s a little different than the New York Steinway.

GN: I have no doubt that one can find metaphysical implications in all the greatest musical compositions – perhaps that is exactly why they are ‘great’ – but how does a study of philosophy actually help you in performance?

RB: It helps a lot. My thesis is on Phenomenology, founded originally by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. A Polish pupil of his, Roman Ingarden, wrote The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity, which was part of his effort to define the field of ‘phenomenological aesthetics’. It discusses the ontology of musical works and experiences, and I learned a lot of things from it as a concert performer. I’m much more aware now of how special and how important is the relation between the stage emotions I’m creating and the audience. This is the metaphysics of the concert experience.

GN: But aren’t abstract philosophy and logic equally important to the aesthetic result?

RB: Yes, but I think that when I’m deeply into the logic of a particular piece, I can also create emotions and metaphysical feelings that the audience can recognize and experience (though perhaps not exactly the same as my own). Daniel Barenboim wrote an interesting book on this. But a role for logic need not apply to all works. For example, the Schumann sonata I played today is much more emotion than logic. It’s a crazy sonata: the tempo of the first movement is marked as fast as possible, and on the last page Schumann writes, ‘Even faster than the beginning’. Of course, it shouldn’t be too fast because then you can’t show the interesting things.

GN: It is always a pleasure to talk philosophy with an artist but, if you don’t mind me asking, have you had the joy of receiving your doctorate yet?

RB: Just about. I’ve finished my thesis but I’m waiting for the last examination.

GN: Your future project to record the Beethoven concertos is exciting. I am sure many of us would like to know of your current projects too.

RB: My next project for Deutsche Grammophon is a chamber music disc with 28-year-old Korean violinist Bomsori Kim. She just released a disc of Shostakovich and Wieniawski Violin Concertos with the Warsaw Philharmonic for Warner Classics. We will be doing violin sonatas by Szymanowski, Fauré and Debussy, to be released next year. I am looking forward to it. I have not done chamber music that extensively, but I have worked with several violinists, including Daniel Stabrawa, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Geoffrey Newman

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