A fascinating interview that Rafał Blechacz gave to PIANiSTE, May 2012.
Rafał Blechacz - The harmony of contrasts
by Stéphane Friédérich
--Impressionism logically reunites works of Debussy and Szymanowski ...
It was indeed the first idea of the program. The result is significantly different. I especially thought about recording works of the second period by Szymanowski, such as Metopes op. 29, close to the impressionism of Debussy. Finally, I chose to sharply contrast the writings in order to for example compare the colors and temperaments of two musicians who have created their own language. The period that I have chosen is associated with impressionism and expressionism. In the Pole, the modulations are as unexpected as those of La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes by the French. Despite their opposition of styles, the two compositions belong to two neighboring sensibilities stemming from the same sources.
--It can be safely said that the art of modulation in Szymanowski has its origins in Chopin. Is it the same in young Debussy?
Absolutely. However, you suggest that compositions by Chopin determined my interpretation of Debussy, but it is exactly the opposite that happened: I interpret Chopin differently because Debussy's music is part of my sonorous universe. We can talk about further the past. The works by Debussy are characterized primarily by great respect for classicism. The tribute is perfectly distinct in the Prelude of the cycle Pour le piano. To interpret it, you must have the two hands completely independent, but also consider that it is a quasi-staccato and the pedal must be by the "millimeter". Finally, we must remember the polyphonic clarity of Bach's Partitas!
Certainly not like the aural equivalent of painting! One might think that the impressionist music evokes the imprecision of timbre, a permanent employment of the pedal ... The music of Debussy is, on the contrary, of unprecedented precision, most written than ever. The musician does not experiment: he has already thought of the color and does not play anything that is not explicitly in his scores.
--It remains in the spirit of French music with Tempo di minuetto of Sonata op. 8 of Szymanowski. One almost hears Ravel's Sonatine ...
I am quite of your opinion. These are polyphonic fragments both simple and of extremely rich harmonics. This sonata is very close to the classical form. But if we take the example of L’Isle joyeuse, Debussy brought a very classic combination to it, too. We don't have to say the piece inspired by a painting by Watteau?
--Apart from the influence of classicism, the exoticism remains as a component of the writings by Debussy and Szymanowski ...
I realized the strength of the Asian exoticism, if present in Debussy - known for his fascination with gamelan, for example - when I played Estampes for the first time in concert. It was in Japan and won a prize at the Hamamatsu Piano competition. I enjoyed trip to visit temples and pagodas especially in Tokyo and in the north. The atmosphere of these places impressed me profoundly. Shortly after this trip, I went to Granada, Spain. Another culture, another sound dimension when you visit this city! These two experiences, one after another had a profound echo in my way of playing. I understand better what composers felt. Debussy never went to Spain. And yet, his music restores it with incredible authenticity. For his part, Szymanowski, who traveled to North Africa before the First World War, has also been influenced by a culture that was alien to him.
--However, Szymanowski reserved a large place for Polish folklore ...
Returning to Polish folklore is later, mazurkas beginning in 1920’s. But like Chopin, Szymanowski was inspired by ancient dances to color a modern language. His scores are never choreographic.
--Who are the interpreters of the past that you have marked for the repertoire of Debussy?
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking ... Cortot deeply impressed me by the Children's Corner. He belongs to immense personalities who made a new listening of the work. But what I remember most readily is their sense of construction that determines all the parameters of their interpretations. Their art has been pushed so far that it becomes a kind of philosophical rule. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, is certainly the one who has most successfully combined intellectual search and sincere expression of feelings.
--Let's talk about your musical education ...
I do not come from a family of professional musicians. However, my parents are music lovers and there was always a piano at home. My first musical impact was not piano, but the organ. As a child, I went to church and I wanted to be an organist. I took my first lessons with a private teacher, then at the music school in Bydgoszcz. It was rather late, after winning my first competition in Poland, at the age of ten that I realized that the piano was definitely the instrument of choice. I didn’t think about becoming a professional musician until later, when I realized that I touched the audience and took pleasure in that. I never gave up the organ. Whenever I have a free time and can go to the tribune of an organ, I play for my own pleasure. When younger, I composed, too. A musician cannot be content with his single instrument. He needs to nourish himself from other artistic expressions. Over time, they apparently become indispensable. In my case, I am an avid reader of novels, books on the philosophy of music and I'm also a big movie fan.
--How was the education by your teachers, Jacek Polanski and Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń at the Conservatory of Bydgoszcz?
With my first teacher, Jacek Polanski, I worked primarily on Bach. His teaching is very traditional, based on the foundations of piano technique. It is thanks to him that I won a prize at Gorzów Bach Competition at the age of 11. I studied a lot of pieces by Czerny, Clementi, Mozart, mostly pieces from the classical repertoire. My "first" Chopin was Nocturne op. 32 No. 2. What a shock to discover harmony and melody so beautiful! For Chopin, I became insatiable! Other shocks of music took place at the age of 14: a recital of pieces by Szymanowski, then with Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń, a great interpreter of Chopin, I discovered the works of Debussy.
--How did you experience the beginning of your career, especially after the Chopin Competition in Warsaw?
The most important thing has been to maintain a balance between concerts, recordings and life away from the keyboard! For a musician, the time of reflection, rest and learning new scores is at least as important as that of working on the piano. Because I need as much time for it, I want a fixed number of appearances on stage. As it happens, I play between 40 to 45 times per year.
--Tell us about your repertoire….
For now, I’m learning several concertos. Next year, I will have priority to concertos with orchestra over solo recitals. As for chamber music, I’m preparing works for violin and piano by Mozart and Szymanowski that I’ll play in June 2013 at the Philharmonie in Berlin with one of the solo violinists from Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Stabrawa. As a soloist, I work on the works of Tansman and Lutosławski, among others. One of my dreams is to record the complete Chopin mazurkas. To play a few works is relatively easy. But to give an integral and thus find the most satisfactory reading for each period, it is much more difficult. It would almost choose different pianos and acoustics in relation to cycles!
--Specifically, do you give much importance to the choice of instruments?
The choice of piano is less decisive than that of its tunings especially harmonization. However, having possibility to select an instrument is chance. This is what I did for this recording devoted to Debussy and Szymanowski. I wanted a piano which is very colorful, and at the same time, especially for Szymanowski, with a great power because the dynamics are significant.
--What advice would you give to amateur pianists who are addressing the music of Szymanowski?
Your question is not evident, because his work often requires substantial technical means. I think you need to skip the first creative period of the composer because pages are often of great virtuosity. Matured repertoire including mazurkas are more affordable or the very first Preludes op. 1. But the purely pianistic aspect should not hide the fact that the atmospheres and style of the works are very special. You cannot separate the two aspects of a work, the technique of one side and the music reproduction on the other. With Szymanowski, everything must be tackled with head on, from the deciphering. That is to say that you must listen to performers who know this music. This is the only guarantee not to commit a mistake in style.
--Since you mentioned virtuosity, what does this word mean to you?
Virtuosity allows you to judge physical condition of your hands. And that's all! It is for me, this is a kind of a test that I have when playing eg Chopin Etudes "reconstituted" by Godowsky.
--Tell us how you organize your working ...
When I'm on tour for a series of concerts, I play less than usual. This may seem odd, but I prefer to maintain a certain freshness of mind and give the best performance that I can do at the recital, and immerse myself, whenever possible, in the atmosphere of the places where I perform. Otherwise, usually I'm in front of the piano for six to seven hours daily, interspersed with many breaks. My day usually starts with the works that I programmed for concerts. When I was younger, I started by playing pieces by Bach such as two or three works from the Goldberg Variations and Chopin’s Etudes as well.
--Speaking of Bach and Chopin, are you careful in the choice of editions?
For Chopin, especially at the Warsaw competition, I worked on the Paderewski Edition. Regarding Bach, you can hardly do without Urtext materials today. And in my case, because I'm used to it from my childhood, it is Peters Edition.