In 2005, the young Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz surprised the world and thrilled his fellow countrymen by winning the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, the first Pole to take top honors at the Chopin Competition in 30 years. Poles have the same relationship to Frédéric Chopin as Americans have to baseball, so this was truly a big thing in Poland.
Blechacz (pronounced BLAY-hahch) made his San Diego debut Friday (May 10) in an exciting and rewarding solo recital at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium. Half of his program was devoted to Chopin and Karol Szymanowski, but before he played the Polish card, he gave stirring, insightful accounts of J. S. Bach’s A Minor Partita, BWV 827, and Beethoven’s D Major Piano Sonata, Op. 10, No. 3.
You might be thinking: if this musician was a hero eight years ago in Warsaw and has been performing and recording since his competition victory, why is he so little known in comparison to, say, those flamboyant, publicity generating young Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li?
At the keyboard, Blechacz revealed a confident extrovert. His Bach Partita exploded with inventive interpretations of contrapuntal conversation, exploiting the myriad dynamic possibilities of the piano (for which Bach did not write) without losing the Baroque proportions of Bach’s idiom. His Chopin breathed the fire of improvisation, especially evident in the surging left hand themes of his passionate account of the C Minor Polonaise (Op. 40, No. 2).
He gloried in the ebullience of the Beethoven D Major Sonata’s opening movement, a daunting Presto, yet relaxed into the playful humor of both the quixotic Menuetto and asymmetrical dancelike concluding Rondo.
I think this young performer needs to exude similar energy in his stage presence. His demure entrance suggested trepidation, and it even took a while for him to warm to the audience’s strong, vocal response to his performance. This may seem like mere window dressing, but a performer’s body language also communicates his intentions and his desire to relate to the audience.
Including Szymanowski’s First Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 8, shed some welcome light on the fate of Polish classical music[php snippet=1] after Chopin. Composed in 1904 while Szymanowski was still a student in Warsaw, this youthful Sonata is a rhapsody constrained in the formal structure of a four movement classical sonata. Blechacz sagely preceded this First Sonata with an engaging account of Chopin’s C-sharp Minor Scherzo, Op. 39, a single movement work with a capricious character and extemporaneous structure.
The young Szymanowski encompassed a similar extravagant spirit, clothing his Piano Sonata in the more complex Romantic harmonic vocaulary of Richard Strauss. The work’s grand flourishes and arched, impetuous themes fit this performer’s inclinations admirably, and his robust technique carried off the work’s challenge with panache.
In the Piano Sonata’s closing movement, the composer managed to cram into close quarters a dark, mysterious opening, an academic fugue that quickly dissolves into a fusillade of cadenza-like flourishes, and a pumped up finale replete with fanfares, wild arpeggios and glissandi. Blechacz unleashed it all with aplomb.