Preludia - Unofficial website for Rafal Blechacz


May 7, 2010

Philip Kennicott essay for Gramophone on Blechacz

A review written by Philip Kennicott and published by "Gramophone"(May 2010 issue) one of the influential classical music magazines. Kennicott writes about his experience of Rafał Blechacz's music--with his latest recording "Chopin The Piano Concertos" and his recital in Washington DC in March this year.

This article was sent to me by an American who adores Rafał Blechacz: she writes,
"Mr. Kennicott is the cultural critic for the Washington Post and writes a monthly column for Gramophone so his opinions do carry some weight".

I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to her for sharing such a wonderful writing. When I read it, I found that I'm of the same view with Kennicott in quite a few points.

Philip Kennicott

The ear needs a balance of live and recorded music to appreciate the full spectrum of art

I wonder if our ears are evolving to suit our scattered minds. For a week I tried to listen to Polish wunderkind Rafał Blechacz’s new recording of the Chopin piano concertos. For a week, I couldn’t make sense of them. The dog barked, work beckoned, dust swirled in the corners of the living room, demanding attention from the vacuum. And the best I could say about Blechacz’s performance was that I found it hard to describe. The best performances are often the most difficult to put into words. It is easy to make sense of the grand appeal; stormy and dramatic playing that is aggressively interesting and charismatic. But the subtle approach, the interpretation that is all in the details and nuance, often eludes any grand summation. Blechacz throws off very little glitter in these bravura pieces but I didn’t realize how much hidden substance I was missing until he came through town.

"The subtle approach often eludes any grand summation"

In the recital hall, with most of the distractions of life kept at bay, Blechacz’s playing was a revelation. The clarity, the finesse, the discipline with tempo and dynamics and the maturity of it was striking. There are singers, of course, who always sound ghastly on the radio or on recording, but who charm thoroughly when heard live. But that’s the quirk of the microphone. Blechacz is different. His musicality flourishes in the right repertoire, under the right conditions. And the most important of those conditions is the mind of the listener.

The Chopin concertos are public works, extrovert scores, music in the virtuoso tradition. One of them bears a dedication to Kalkbrenner, which demonstrates where Chopin’s mind and ambition were in 1830. Blechacz plays them with a kind of poetic firmness, a clarity of mind that doesn’t succumb easily to egotistical display. There is no wildness or swagger and no sentimentality. He plays these works rather like Alfred Brendel plays Beethoven.

Which is bound to disappoint ears looking for easy blandishments. If I hadn’t heard the same pianist play more Chopin—but very different Chopin—a few weeks later, I probably would have put the recording away, undigested. But his recital changed everything.

Blechacz, who won the 15th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in 2005, looks like a student—and his recital programme seemed almost dutifully exhaustive (Bach, Mozart, Debussy and Chopin) in the manner of a student playing for a prize of degree committee. There is a modesty to his public presence, mirrored in the humility of his interpretations. He is studious, in the best sense, searching and probing, but always within the confines of the text. I kept thinking of the little band of aspiring poets, philosophers and scientists who shame the meretricious world of cheap intellectual display in Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Somewhere, in spirit if not Paris, there is a garret with Blechacz’s name on it.

For his recital, he chose the darker, private side of Chopin, the Chopin of fits and starts and inward contemplation that is nowhere to be heard in the piano concertos. How many pianists can really make sense of the Polonaise-Fantasie, that weird slight-of-hand game Chopin plays with the famous Polish dance? This is more a deconstruction of the Polonaise, amid a tempestuous landscape of morbid introspection. Blechacz stitched this work of fragments together into something coherent, an edge-of-the-seat drama of micro-gestures.

Rafał Blechacz: striking maturity

He did the same with the Ballade in A flat major and the Scherzo in B minor, finessing the stark contrasts between the naïve and tempestuous. Both works became curiously pianistic, but not pedantic. Blechacz’s technique emphasizes clarity, the individuality of each note, the pure articulation even when Chopin seems to be calling for a blur of noise. He seems uninterested in making these pieces suggest an orchestral richness. The piano is enough, its textures and possibilities sufficient to capture everything Chopin put on the page.

Little surprise, then, that he chose the Mazurka Op 17 No 4 for his only encore. We gave it up abundantly for Blechacz and he chose to reward it with one of the most anguished of Chopin’s small essays in despair. I think the choice speaks volumes about his understanding of the composer. He isn’t searching for Chopin the young showman of Chopin the craftsman of perfect Parisian miniatures. He is interested in the Polish Chopin, and in this bicentennial of the composer’s birth, it’s good to hear from a young Pole on the subject.

I went back to the Chopin concertos recording. It sounded entirely different. I was impatient with the orchestra as an unnecessary distraction, eager to hear Blechacz and Blechacz alone. The playing emerged with a profile for the first time. The fault isn’t his. It’s entirely mine. For all of us who live so many hours in the spectral world of audio recordings, it’s important to make regular pilgrimages to the concert hall. The bonds formed there between artists and audiences are the best guarantee that we will listen with ears adapted to the full spectrum of art.
(End of review)

Read Philip Kennicott's review of Washington DC recital by Rafał Blechacz
and readers' comments on that.

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