Monday, April 23, 2018

Celebrating Twenty Years

How fortunate we are in Vancouver to have had the opportunity to hear performances from two distinguished pianists, one at the height of his maturity, and the other one still at the early stages of his journey in music. Early this month, Sir AndrĂ¡s Schiff gave a magnificent recital under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Yesterday afternoon, Rafal Blechacz gave an equally memorable performance to celebrate the 20thanniversary of The Vancouver Chopin Society.

The common work between the two concerts was Mozart’s late masterpiece, the Rondo in A minor, K. 511. Like Schiff, Blechacz did not fall into the trap of lugubriousness, and wisely kept the impetus of the music. Uncommon in someone so young, Blechacz has a real sense of the architecture of the work, and his playing gave me the feeling of a connection between the first and last note of the music. This was apparent in every work, large or small, that he played yesterday.

Blechacz gave an inspired reading of Mozart’s great Sonata in A minor, K. 310, one of the composer’s most technically challenging and dramatic works. In the opening, the young artist managed to avoid making the left hand chords sound percussive, very difficult on the modern piano, by making those chords part of the larger texture of the music, rather than treating them as mere accompaniment. It is remarkable that so young an artist can infuse the music with a palpable simplicity and naturalness, as he did in this work. In the second movement, he perfectly balanced the contrast between the lyrical and the very dramatic. It is perhaps no accident that the pianist’s most recent recording was devoted to the works of Bach. In the third movement, there was a lightness and textual clarity in his playing that reminds me of how he approached the dance suites of Bach in his recording.  There was a real balance in the vertical and horizontal in the music in the way he approached this final movement. 

I am personally in awe of Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 101, one of the composer’s most original works. It takes any pianist real courage to tackle this musically and technically challenging sonata. Although regarded as one of Beethoven’s late sonatas, I feel that, conceptually and musically, it is closer to the “experimental” sonatas like Op. 81a. Blechacz availed himself magnificently in this incredible work. Once again, there was a sense of connection between the simple rocking motive of the opening measures and the triumphal final chords in the third movement. In the left hand octaves at mm. 7 to 11 of the first movement, he conjured an almost organ-like sound. The last time I heard a sound like that on the piano was from Alfred Brendel, when he gave an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (in the left hand octaves of the final fugue.) In the second movement, which almost foreshadows the march from Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, Blechacz was technically impregnable, and there was an effortlessness that came across in the music. His acute sense of rhythm served him well in the dotted-rhythmic figures throughout the movement. So wonderful was his sense of musical timing that the brief Adagio, ma non troppo, con affecttomovement became a perfect intermezzo, a sort of musical Segway, before the final movement. His playing of the brief return of the first movement’s opening theme, lasting only seven measures, was charged with meaning. In the final movement, there was a Glenn Gould like clarity in how he handled the musical texture. Blechacz’s playing of the fugue was exhilarating.

The second half of the recital began with Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22. To me, this work often sounds like four beautiful but disparate character pieces rather than movements of a sonata. It is a credit to the artist that he managed to once again highlight the architecture of the overall work. Blechacz captured the fever, the sense of urgency and desperation in the first, third, and final movements. For me, the highlight was his playing of the gorgeous second movement, where he shone a light on the music like a precious gem. 

I am sure many people went to yesterday’s performance to hear Blechacz’s Chopin, and he certainly did not disappoint. In his performance of the composer’s Mazurkas, Op. 24, I was very much reminded of the playing of Arthur Rubinstein. There was again this feeling of simplicity and naturalness that was beguiling. His timing in each of the four dances was impeccable; as was his sense of rubato, not exaggerated or contrived, but giving the sense that it was just as the music should be. I was particularly taken with his interpretation of the Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No. 2, where he took a slightly slower tempo than usual, but did not take away any of the music’s natural flow. 

Blechacz concluded his recital with Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. Yes, under the hands of a great artist, it is possible to make this work sound fresh and original. He played the famous opening theme with great simplicity and lightness, but with no lack in the dignity and pride that are so inherent in this music. As in the mazurkas, his sense of musical timing was palpable throughout this performance. His playing of the octave passage in the B section was breathtaking, but not showy. 

It had been a very generous afternoon of music making, but after much urging from the audience, Blechacz granted us an encore of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2, a work that Schiff also played in his recital. Blechacz’s beautiful and thoughtful playing of this beautiful autumnal work by Brahms was a perfect ending to this very memorable of great performances of great music. 

In a world that is full of technically perfect pianists, it is refreshing to hear an artist, especially one so young, who does not make technical proficiency his primary concern. Throughout the afternoon, I never thought of how “well” he played the piano, but how beautiful the musicwas. Certainly I cannot think of a higher tribute to this supremely gifted young artist.

April 23, 2018

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