After days of heavy rain in the Bay Area, the weather finally cleared, as did my mood. I was about to hear Rafal Blechacz, the winner of the 2005 International Chopin Competition, in recital at Herbst Theater in San Francisco. This was the second time he has performed for San Francisco Chamber Music, so the excitement and expectations for this event filled the internet. On Facebook, people writing on Blechacz’s homepage were counting down the days to his recital. Statuses were blooming with his name, and young pianists were enthralled, especially since three years passed since he had last played in San Francisco.
His program led us to expect substantial amounts of Chopin, and as expected, the entire second half was taken up by the Polish master. As I sat down with my pianist friend, I couldn’t help but feel a little light headed, for Blechacz is one of my favorite pianists and Chopin interpreters. Even though I was most looking forward to the second half of the program, the first half caught my attention immediately, for it turned out to be just as substantial and electrifying as the second.
As Blechacz appeared on stage, my friend remarked how petite and thin he looked. I recalled, from his last solo performance here, his very shiny and Chopin-like hair, as well as the same subdued elegance in his clothes. His personality lights up the audience from the very first moment he appears and approaches the piano. His stage presence is very direct and straightforward with charming smiles for the audience.
He appropriately opened the evening’s program with Mozart’s 9 Variations on Lison dormait, K. 264, a piece that seemed quite congenial to him. It is evident that Blechacz’s performing style leans heavily toward sparkling, airy, melodic music, since this type of music often revealed his best playing. This Mozart performance was as charming and enchanting as you could ever hope to hear. The emotions he projected throughout the variations were totally absorbing, and every moment was packed with fascinating detail. Although his playing was intricate, Blechacz also demonstrated that much can be achieved through simplicity. His natural shaping of melodies, as well the relationship he created between phrases, created considerable charm. It is obvious that his natural affinity for Mozart went hand in hand with his affinity for Chopin.
Although it might be very interesting to hear him play Prokofiev or Stravinsky, something he wouldn’t normally perform, the Debussy and Szymanowski we heard him play more than made up for the lack of bombastic 20th and 21st century music on his program. In Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, Blechacz’s delicate shades of color were honey to the ears, once again showing the subtleties of his pianistic skills. Not one note was amiss, and the clarity of the music was breathtaking. In addition to his masterful technical and musical perfection, he also proved to us that sometimes, simple, no-nonsense playing is all a piece needs.
One characteristic that was apparent through both the Mozart and the Debussy was Blechacz’s almost uncanny ability to play super softly. His fingers often seemed as light and supple as cherry blossom petals in a summer breeze. He doesn’t use overwhelming dynamics (although one doesn’t feel deprived of strength), but his control of soft passages came across as something quite special. At times, certain phrases seemed so quiet that you couldn’t believe the next phrase could be played any softer. However, Blechacz demonstrated his ability to play almost inaudibly, while still maintaining the substance of the music. Quite like Chopin himself, Blechacz is more concerned with highlighting the magic of the softer dynamic spectrum, rather than blasting our ears with brassy, flashy sounds.
Szymanowski, although seldom played and unfamiliar to the most audiences, was not to be overlooked by Blechacz. A polish hero, this composer seems always to be a part of his programs. Szymanowski’s First Sonata in C minor felt perfectly in place after the Debussy, and it foreshadowed the Chopin-filled second half of the program. Influenced by Chopin’s folk music and impressionism alike, Szymanowski seems to bring out the best in Blechacz. Although this Sonata is much more grandly-stated and complex than the previous pieces on the program, Blechacz managed to pull this sonata together into a cohesive and satisfying work.
Even though the melancholy and darkness of Szymanowski’s Sonata were beautifully conveyed, especially in the slower movements and sections, the brightness and glamor of the piece was substantially highlighted through Blechacz’s fingers, from the very first notes of the opening movement. The pianist played the second movement like a sweet reminiscence of a Chopin prelude. The instantly memorable third movement Minuet, was an innocent fresh breath of air, and tossed off effortlessly by Blechacz. The final movement was remarkable for its complexity (complete with a well-executed 3-voice fugue) impressively ending the first half of the program on a full C Major chord. The Szymanowski, in retrospect, was certainly one of the highlights of the recital. The pianist found a way to outline the piece strongly, giving it a shiny carcass to fill. Outer voices never lacked power and substance, although the middle voices seemed somewhat unclear a few times
Chopin’s highly anticipated First Ballade opened the second half of the program. It was remarkable how the pianist took the longest time, out of his entire program, to start the two Ballades. The first page’s thoughtfulness would be very difficult for anyone to improve. Blechacz knows that the key characteristic of a Ballade is getting the tone of the melody just right, and the soaring songfulness of the piece came out wonderfully. What was unexpected and slightly different from his last recital in San Francisco was the direct style in which Blechacz played such a lush piece. Reminiscent of Van Cliburn’s huge-hearted playing, the pianist left all frilliness behind and focused simply on one type of emotion. Unlike his usual use of intricate rubato and decorations, Blechacz blasted through the piece full-force, showing his no-boundaries passion. Sometimes, more powerful sections seemed to stay at the same volume for quite some time (which was, again, unexpected from someone as sensitive as Blechacz). But his honesty and good-natured playing by far outweighed any such issues.
The two Op. 26 Polonaises and Op. 41 Mazurkas followed. In the Polonaises, Blechacz showed his more violent nature, and although his performances were adrenalin driven, they were not in the least forced. At the same time he managed to showcase the softer, calmer side of these works. The mazurkas were another highlight of the entire recital, standing out through their ingenious use of freedom and rubato in rhythm (while at the same time remaining true to what the composer wrote.) It would be very difficult to find anyone who could so masterfully project the highly Polish characteristics of these mazurkas better than Blechacz.
As the grand finale, the pianist prepared a highly-tumultuous interpretation of Chopin’s Second Ballade. After the few moments of bliss and lightness the first page provided, the audience was once again dragged into some of the fieriest storms of music the composer ever wrote. Blechacz’s technique was impressive here, and the piece seemed to have even more broadness than the Ballade No. 1 did. Although the pianist’s fingers sang more in the First Ballade than the Second, the latter held together more tightly. It was the perfect way to end the recital.
But encores were nevertheless inevitable. The first was a highly discreet and sublime version of Chopin’s Posthumous C-sharp minor Nocturne, bringing further melancholy to the audience. Audiences gasped in surprise, however, when Blechacz sat down again and played an extremely free and cheerful 3rd movement of Beethoven’s early Second Sonata.
Rafal Blechacz will never stop pleasing audiences. It is only a matter of time before he finds the perfect balance between well-mannered classicism and thick romanticism. His artistic development can be easily observed, and his continuous search for a perfect pianistic identity is a very exciting one to follow. He never failed to remind audiences of what true artistry is all about, and he will continue to inspire young pianists, such as myself, to be like him.