Stunning Chopin, Debussy and Szymanowski from Rafal Blechacz in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Various: Rafal Blechacz (piano). Vancouver Chopin Society, Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 13.3.2024. (GN)

Rafal Blechacz

Chopin – Nocturne No.1 in F minor, Op.55; Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat major, Op.61: Mazurkas, Op.6; Polonaises No.1 in A major & No.2 in C minor, Op.40; Polonaise in A-flat major, Op.53

DebussySuite Bergamasque
Mozart – Sonata No.11 in A major, K.331
Szymanowski – Variations in B-flat minor, Op.3

Since winning the 2005 Warsaw Chopin Competition in resounding fashion, Rafal Blechacz has slowly but surely developed into one of the most distinguished pianists of his generation, and possibly a worthy successor to Krystian Zimerman, his compatriot. His keyboard command is prodigious, and few can equal him in terms of tonal beauty, clarity and rhythmic élan. As we have witnessed in his previous visits to the Vancouver Chopin Society – the last in 2018 for the twentieth anniversary of the organization – his best interpretations are absolutely stunning and glowing in romantic involvement. The great successes in the current recital were his Chopin, Debussy and Szymanowski, composers he has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and two of whom share the artist’s Polish roots.

The Chopin pieces are clearly a natural for this artist, and the concert began with them. The highlight was the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op.61, which was given the most beautifully judged and concentrated rendering I have heard in concert. The work has a definite structure that moves it forward, but the difficulty is that many intimate corners and shades of sadness must be explored at the same time. This interpretation did not shy from the challenge. It was Blechacz’s unerring control of the balance between dramatic strength and intimacy, his awareness of a darker narrative and his wonderful suspension of the softer lyrical lines that made the reading come out as so natural and complete. There was always a sense of inevitability in the music’s progress, the range of dynamics and colour was stunning and the depth of feeling at the work’s powerful conclusion was quite overwhelming. Blechacz’s dramatic power and control of intensity were consummate, and he has an artful way of imbuing lyrical phrases with a special sentiment that draws the listener in.

Enticing in a different way were Chopin’s early Mazurkas, Op.6. The naturalness of Blechacz’s rhythmic inflections and the sheer precision in his playing made each one of these four pieces a jewel. I cannot recall enjoying them more. A thoughtful Nocturne No.1, Op. 55, again notable for its emotional suspension and its ability to make every note speak, opened the concert.

Three Polonaises completed the Chopin traversal, but I am not sure that many in the audience (including myself) expected them since they were not listed on the programme sheet. When the pianist came out for the first – the famous ‘Military’ Polonaise – I thought it was an in-concert encore. Then, he came out for a second, then a third. It definitely felt like something that would occur at the end of a concert. In fact, performing Chopin at the end of this recital was his original intention, until he decided at short notice to reverse the order. In any case, a little confusion never hurt anyone.

Blechacz gave very Polish performances of these commanding pieces, with plenty of energy and rhythmic snap – and all the better for it. In the ‘Military’ and the companion No.2, the pianist’s sense of architecture was again distinctive, and he succeeded in drawing attention to the quieter, more thoughtful diversions as well. He was possibly a little tired by the time he got to the famous ‘Heroic’ Polonaise which, though powerful, seemed slightly hurried and delivered as more of a crowd-pleaser.

After this Chopin mini-concert, it seemed that it was time to take a break. But no, the pianist had not finished the first half of the concert. It was time to switch gears to Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque – and what a feast of beautiful playing this was. Though some might prefer a more forthright approach to the Prelude, Blechacz opened it out to find a lovely, impressionistic flow, spinning a gossamer-like texture between its bolder thematic statements, and often suspending the music in the manner of some of the composer’s more meditative later preludes. His rubato was infinitely subtle, and the degree of delicacy in his fingering was remarkable.

The following Minuet was particularly attentive to variations in dynamics and captured its playfulness and intricacy well. The inward restraint and consideration exhibited throughout ‘Clair de lune’ was exceptional: it gave the impression that the pianist was struggling to express something unspeakably beautiful, which made its climax all the more telling. I have rarely heard the piece as subtle in inward feeling or in phrase, and the result was treasurable. The closing Passepied was notably exact in rhythm and dynamics, but it still conveyed lightness and carefree spirit superbly. Blechacz’s interpretation of the suite seemed so ‘right’ from beginning to end, and I think it is one to learn from.

Mozart’s famous Sonata in A major led off the second half, and here the results were less distinctive. Given his dramatic tendencies, it seems that Blechacz has struggled to put Mozart in exactly the right place for his sensibilities. Previously, in the Sonata No.8, he sought a scale that was slightly too big and romantic. It seems that he is now aware of that tendency, and scales things down. But the result was plain. Blechacz played all the variations pretty quickly in the opening movement, and while some potentially interesting contrapuntal effects and dramatic contrasts were exposed, he did not find the charm in these pieces or their delightful sense of interweaving. The playing was pristine but the expository line of each variation was too flat, with the contrasts too abrupt. The Minuet also tended to be matter of fact. Of course, the ‘Rondo alla Turca’ finale has become a virtuoso piece on its own, and here the pianist was certainly on his toes and exciting enough, but it was a little too fast for my taste. I am fully aware that Blechacz may have been trying to shake the cobwebs from this sonata, but I did not find enough novelty here.

The closing performance of Szymanowski’s Variations in B-flat minor (1901-3) was another matter. The pianist took this very early student work, written when the composer was beginning his studies at the State Conservatory in Warsaw, and made it seem like a masterpiece.

The variation form of this 13-minute piece was almost certainly inherited from Schumann and Brahms and some of its rhapsodic spirit from Liszt, with clear Russian influences from Scriabin and (at least in this performance) Rachmaninoff.  Both of the latter had written a sizeable body of piano pieces by the turn of the century. In the twelve variations, alternating between vibrantly bold and more tranquil and poetic, Szymanowski shows a fertile imagination in combining constructional techniques, not shying away from chromaticism or dissonance. Only the third variation is explicitly based on a Polish folk dance.

Blechacz displayed a rhapsodic intensity in welding these variations together, revealing the work’s originality of construction and its radiant emotional power. Each variation was characterized uniquely, but the pianist fit them all into a bigger story, one that found a deep sensitivity in the more musing variations but a bracing strength and grandness overall. The colour in Blechacz’s playing was remarkable, and the power and amplitude he achieved in the coda was transcendent. This is what ‘romantic’ piano playing should be like. And what a remarkable student composition!

After all this, the pianist even found time for two more Chopin encores: the Mazurka No.4 in A minor and the Prelude No.7 in A major. A splendid concert!

Geoffrey Newman

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