Thursday, March 14, 2024

Artist at Work

What a joy it is to hear the piano being played so lovingly, and so achingly beautifully, as it was last evening with Rafal Blechacz, his fourth recital appearance in Vancouver under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society.


I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Blechacz on various occasions, and had always enjoyed his performances. This time, I was utterly and completely moved, indeed overwhelmed, by his artistry and musicality, as well as the palpable spirituality of his interpretations. 


The way he played the piano transcended the instrument, and what one hears are sounds of music, heavenly music.


With the first simple notes of the Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1, the audience was drawn into his very intimate and personal sound world. Indeed, throughout the evening, I felt that we were invited by the artistry to share in the communion of music-making, and that is a great gift indeed. Blechacz had an acute sense of balancing the horizontal and vertical aspects of the music; the music was never driven, but rather floated forward.


Chopin’s early Mazurkas, Op. 6, presents some daunting technical and musical challenges for any pianists; needless to say, Blechacz towered above any technical difficulties inherent in the score. In these works, Blechacz conveyed and celebrated the joy of the young composer, almost reveling in the fecundity of his creative genius. 


The first half of the recital ended with four large works. In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, he so skillfully delineated the complex contrapuntal web so inherent in the composer’s late works, resulting in a truly masterful interpretation of this, arguably Chopin’s greatest work, a work that, because of its seemingly fragmentary nature, can sometimes come out sounding disjointed and meaningless. Not so with Blechacz’s performance, where every note, every chord, every inflection, every pregnant pause (and there were many of them), and every phrase were charged with emotion and meaning. More importantly, he conveyed, more than many pianists I have heard in a long time, the utter tragedy and heartbreak, combined with a feeling of a final defiance, of the drama unfolding.


He continued with a spirited but incredibly musical reading of the famous Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, and a suitably dark and brooding performance of the lesser-known Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2. The first half ended with a performance of the Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, that made one wanted to shout, “Viva Poland!” That said, these performances of Chopin’s rousing polonaises were not merely exciting, but tremendously moving and hauntingly beautiful. 


The second half of the recital began with a performance of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque that made me think of the composer’s statement that he wished for a piano without hammers. Blechacz’s playing of these four pieces were simply magical. His timing in the Prelude gave it an almost improvisatory quality, and in the Menuet and Passepied, there was a quickness, delicacy and lightness that simply took my breath away. The justly famous Clair de Lune was played with infinite shades of pianissimos. Words cannot describe the truly mesmerizing beauty of the performance was.


In Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331, Blechacz presented the work with highly expressive playing and, while always maintaining the structural integrity of the work, he was not afraid to take time with certain phrases, or inject slight pauses to emphasize a point. Perhaps some might find his interpretation too “romantic”, but I found it completely valid and convincing. It was also the most “bubbly”, and infectiously joyful, playing of the Rondo all Turca I have heard in a long time.


It is difficult to pinpoint the style of Karol Szymanowski’s music. While there is an indebtedness to Chopin, he has very much his own unique voice in his creations. Blachacz gave a truly splendid and totally committed reading of the composer’s Variations in B-flat minor, Op. 3, bringing out both the lyrical aspects of the composer’s writing, but also the late-romantic harmonic colours of the early 20th century. Blechacz highlighted the characteristic of each variation, but also managed to inject a real sense of cohesion and logic throughout the entire opus.


After a well-deserved ovation from the nearly sold-out house, Blechacz graciously granted two encores – Chopin’s pensive Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, and his charming miniature masterpiece, the Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7, confirming my belief that while there are many great pianists today, there are really far fewer who can really capture the spirit of Chopin. Blechacz is of course one of today’s great pianists, but he is, without a doubt, a musician that gets into the heart and soul of the composer, and we were witnesses to a performance that was truly a testament to his commitment to conveying the absolutely unique genius of Chopin.


How privileged we were last evening, to be given a glimpse into the continuing artistic evolution of this most gifted young artist. I certainly look forward to his next visit to Vancouver, where he would no doubt move us once more with his musicality and unique insights into whatever he chooses to play.








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