Recording of the Month
‘He has little inclination to bathe the passagework in an impressionistic haze as many do, choosing to emphasise the virtuosity of the writing’
Rafał Blechacz’s fourth DG recording has revelations aplenty for Jeremy Nicholas
I thought this was going to be a disc of two halves. In fact, it is more of a continuous journey – and a most rewarding, artfully conceived one it is, too. Rafał Blechacz shot to prominence when he won all five first prizes at the 15th Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2005. Six months before that event, he had recorded some Debussy (Suite bergamasque) and Szymanowski (Variations, Op 3), two further composers with whom he clearly has an innate affinity. Such empathy is reinforced by this, his fourth recording for DG, with which he has been since 2006 (he’s only the second Polish artist after Krystian Zimerman to be signed by the label).
All are relatively early works, and composed within the first decade of the 20th century. I love Blechacz’s crisp articulation and lightly pedaled bustle in the outer movements of Pour le piano (an arresting, impetuous opening to the ‘Prélude’ and wonderful jeu perlé in its final page). He has little inclination to bathe the passagework in an impressionistic haze, as many players do (‘Prélude’, ‘Sarabande’ and ‘Toccata’, the titles of the three movements, are, after all, formal classical titles and not those of tone-poems), choosing to emphasise the virtuosity of the writing and reminding us how much Debussy learnt from Liszt. No less, but for different reasons, did I enjoy Estampes, written just two years later (1903) but occupying a very different sound world. Here the piano becomes a painter evoking places and events, and Blechacz reacts accordingly with playing of beguiling, warm sensuality (try ‘La soirée dans Grenade’), preferable to my ears to the chilly objectivity of Michelangeli, paradoxically one of Blechacz’s idols. ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ is truly net et vif with some hailstones in the downpour. The blazing end of L’isle joyeuse leads us, after a pause, quietly, naturally, into the parallel sound world of Szymanowski.
|Piano as painter: Rafał Blechacz in Debussy's Estampes|
I’m sure it’s coincidence that both works chosen by Blechacz featured in competitions: the Prélude (1909) and (four-voice) Fugue (1905) in C sharp minor won second prize in a 1909 competition sponsored by the Berlin musical journal Signale für die Musikalische Welt (the Prélude was added specifically for the occasion). Busoni, who was on the jury, mistook it, bizarrely, for a work by Schoenberg (he was quickly disabused by the latter); to my ears there is more than a hint of Scriabin and the labyrinthine counterpoint of Reger in its classically inspired textures. Slight and unrepresentative of Szymanowski’s later style though it may be, it is an attractive short work and beautifully played.
A full 20 seconds of silence follow before the early Sonata in C minor, Op 8, where the influences of Chopin, Scriabin, Richard Strauss and others are more obvious. This was Szymanowski’s first big cyclic work, written between 1903 and 1904 while he was studying with Zygmunt Noskowski, and which subsequently in 1910 received first prize in a competition organised by the Chopin Centenary Committee at Lwów. Once championed by Szymanowski’s friend Arthur Rubinstein, but by too few pianists since, it is a strikingly effective recital piece. Its four movements last over 25 minutes, beginning with an Allegro moderato that clearly takes its lead from Chopin. An emotionally charged Adagio is followed by a look back to earlier times with a Minuet. One can sense Szymanowski’s growing sense of confidence as the work progresses: the final movement has a portentous introduction succeeded by an impressive three-voice fugue. This works to a thrilling climax before a somewhat overwrought coda.
Whatever its shortcomings, it’s a better work than Chopin’s C minor Sonata and, though it lacks memorable themes, is far less daunting (to hear and to play) than either Szymanowski’s Second or Third Sonata. Of the few alternatives available of Op 8, the recording by Raymond Clarke (Divine Art, 9/99) is spoken of highly but I have heard only Martin Roscoe’s (Naxos, 10/00) and Martin Jones's (Nimbus, 9/94). Blechacz’s has the edge on them as much for his fierce emotional engagement with the music as for the superior sound quality.
|"Championed by too few":|
Szymanowski's first sonata
My one complaint about this outstanding issue is DG’s dismal booklet and presentation. There are no background notes on the music or its composers, and little on the gifted artist who has taken the trouble to play it. If it’s an attempt to be cool and modish, it doesn’t work, coming across as discourteous to both artist and customer.
Your guide to the disc’s memorable moments
Track 1: ‘Prélude’ from Pour le piano, 0’00”
Blechacz attacks this opening movement like few others – but exactly as Debussy instructed: non legato, assez animé et très rythmé.
Track 1 :3’00”
The ‘Prélude’ ends with a quasi-cadenza consisting of a series of featherlight runs in the treble, which Blechacz dispatches with miraculous evenness and fluency.
Track 4: ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes
Note how Blechacz now changes the sound of the piano in this depiction of the Javanese dances that Debussy heard at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. There’s a particularly evocative passage from 1’59” to 3’10”.
Track 10: Piano Sonata, Allegro moderato
After the tumultuous opening of the Sonata, Szymanowski introduces a second subject at 1’08” by the same means as Chopin did in the first movement of his B minor Sonata.
Track 11: Piano Sonata, Adagio
The way Blechacz handles this movement seems like a natural extension of his Chopin-playing.
Track 14: Piano Sonata, Fuga
The start of the fugue’s recapitulation at 4’14” introduces a densely contrapuntal passage of increasing tension, lucidly voiced and dynamically graded by Blechacz.
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