“I FEEL AT HOME PLAYING CHOPIN”
(From linernotes of CD "Chopin Complete Preludes")
A young Polish pianist makes his Deutsche Grammophon debut
In October 2005 an unassuming young man from the small northern Polish town of Nakło - concentrated yet open, modest almost to a fault - arrived in Warsaw for the 15th International Chopin Competition. I had heard him for the first time three months earlier and, although I did not know at the time who else would be participating, I was already certain that Rafał Blechacz would be among the competition's finest interpreters. His playing offered such poetry, maturity, poise and concentration as well as a phenomenal technique - sparkling, precise, luminous.
Since Krystian Zimerman won the 9th Competition in 1975, no Polish artist had emerged whose Chopin could sweep listeners away with a fresh approach, compelling personality and, above all, interpretative honesty. These attributes - coupled with his uncommon attitude of humility towards the music and the composer - seem to have characterized Rafał Blechacz's Chopin from his first involvement with it, and in Warsaw in 2005 they enabled him to garner all of the major prizes. In recognizing his exceptional talent, the jury decided for the first time in the competition's history not to grant a second prize. Observing him there and listening to his interpretations, one was convinced that they closely approached a Chopinesque ideal.
“It has been a long, natural process," says Rafał, “which began with the B major Nocturne op.32 no.1. But my view of Chopin was enriched by performing the music of other composers, especially Bach, the three great Viennese Classical composers and Debussy, for whom the control of colour and moulding of the sound are so essential." Blechacz impressed me with his interpretations of Viennese Classics during one of his recitals following the competition, and with an emotional poise rarely achieved by one so young. But it was in the Chopin group that I immediately sensed a union of kindred spirits: composer and performer. “Yes, I feel at home playing Chopin," he says. “Somewhere in my intuition, subconsciously, I feel that this is the way it should sound."
Growing up far from a major cultural centre, Blechacz was able to develop his talent in a conducive setting. His parents, neither of them musicians, provided him with the ideal environment for devoting himself to his work. They bought him recordings, drove him to piano lessons and took him to concerts. He commuted to Bydgoszcz, studying there initially with Jacek Polañski at the Artur Rubinstein High School, and then with Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroñ at the Bydgoszcz Music Academy, finishing his studies with her there at the end of June 2007.
“My professor opened the gates of art to me, including the vital importance of pianistic tone colour when she introduced me to Debussy. This helped prepare me for Chopin. I began to study his music under her tutelage and worked up my competition programme with her. Although the Chopin Competition is something sacred to us Poles, my teacher and I treated it as just one more stage in my development. There are many other competitions after which one could also begin a concert career. Mme Popowa-Zydroñ had always stressed this fact, adding: 'You could lose in every competition, but it is most important for you not to lose your love of music.'"
In Warsaw, Rafał was completely absorbed in his carefully assembled programme; his playing was never tentative or artificial. Perhaps only he was somewhat taken aback by his unprecedented success. “I did not expect so much," he says, “maybe because I didn't take part in all the surrounding hubbub. After each performance I went back home to Nakło. I rested, walked in the woods, didn't listen to the radio or read the newspapers. It was only at home afterwards that the realization dawned that my greatest dream had come true. And only then did I understand how many new challenges I now faced. Krystian Zimerman sent me a beautiful letter of congratulation and wrote that I could count on his help. Recently we spent a few days together. We talked and worked a lot. I feel that I have found a true friend."
In addition to a flood of recital and concert invitations, Blechacz's victory in Warsaw brought him a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. “It's exciting but a little overwhelming that my music will now become available to everyone and will be the subject of analysis and criticism. That's a great responsibility and the reason why - just as at the competition - I have tried to be as physically and mentally prepared for this recording as possible."
Why did the pianist choose the Preludes for his debut CD? “They're endlessly fascinating - their great variety encompasses so many different ideas. I've tried to shape the miniatures of op. 28 into a unit, a single entity having its own internal tension and drama. The Nocturnes of op. 62 I've been familiar with for a long time and feel that I've discovered a convincing way of interpreting these multi-faceted masterpieces. In these two works Chopin was far ahead of his time in terms of both harmony and colour. The B major invites comparisons with Impressionism."
When asked whether he favours a Classical or Romantic style of Chopin playing, Blechacz unhesitatingly opts for the former. “Not only extroverted interpretations but also introverted ones with inner discipline can leave the listener fulfilled. Mine is closer to what I would call a Mendelssohnian perspective, perhaps due to my earlier experience with the Classical repertoire. I have always strived to keep the musical form intact while bringing out as much detail as possible. When everything is laid out clearly and straightforwardly, it is so much easier to convey the emotions contained within a composition. That doesn't mean that I reject the Romantic style. I may not be as extroverted as some of the Russian pianists, but I think there will come a time for me to play Rachmaninoff."