Rafal Blechacz: Starry Young Lisztian

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The New York Sun

SALZBURG, Austria — Rafal Blechacz, born in 1985, is a Polish pianist and a rising star. He had the honor of a recital at the Salzburg Festival last week — in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum, one of the most beautiful concert venues (or venues period) in all the world.

Young Mr. Blechacz studied at the Artur Rubinstein School — which is natural — and, three years ago, won the Chopin Competition, held in Warsaw. That, too, might be regarded as natural.

This has been a pretty good summer in Salzburg for Polish pianists: Krystian Zimerman (a previous Chopin winner) played earlier in the same week. All we need, practically, is Piotr Anderszewski.


Mr. Blechacz is very boyish, looking even younger than his meager years. He has a small, thin frame and tousled hair. And he can really tuck into a piano. He played a mixed program, the kind that shows off versatility, and also the kind that pianists offer when they first start out. Later on, you get one-composer evenings, “theme” programs, and other things that make the hearts of musicologists go pitter-pat.

First on Mr. Blechacz’s agenda was, appropriately, Bach — the Italian Concerto. This work is sometimes viewed as hackneyed, but not in fresh, capable hands — which Mr. Blechacz’s are.

The opening Allegro was jaunty, well accented, and stirring. It was not exactly tidy, but it was musical and compelling. The middle movement, Andante, can be more mesmerizing, and also more singing. But Mr. Blechacz was interesting in it — taking some successful liberties, for example.


The closing Presto was not too fast — not Prestissimo — which is to the pianist’s credit. And it was duly exciting, even dramatic, with sharply contrasting dynamics. The line could have been smoother, however. Think of pianists such as Richard Goode or Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Mr. Blechacz’s line was crunchier — more Germanic, actually — and he was also a little blunt.

But it was good to hear the Italian Concerto from these hands.

Mr. Blechacz continued his program with three pieces of Liszt: “Waldesrauschen,” “La leggierezza,” and “Gnomenreigen.” And he demonstrated what you ought to demonstrate in these pieces: a big technique and a Romantic imagination. In other words, Mr. Blechacz is a Lisztian. Throughout these pieces, when the pianist performed some technical feat, the man in front of me looked at his wife as if to say, “How ’bout that?” His amazement and pleasure was justified.


I am pleased to report that Mr. Blechacz’s passagework was, by and large, smooth. And was “La leggierezza” sufficiently light (for its very name means lightness)? Yes.

I should caution, however, that Mr. Blechacz is a bit of a head-nodder — not as bad as Evgeny Kissin, for example, but tending in that direction. As a rule, head-nodders are no good. But there are happy exceptions.

Mr. Blechacz closed the first half of his recital with some French Impressionism, namely Debussy’s “Estampes.” The first of these three pieces, “Pagodes,” was rather picked at and fussed over. Notes were placed, instead of occurring naturally. Moreover, this piece ought to have some stateliness and order — also a good deal of mystery. On this occasion, it missed those things.

The second piece, however — “La soirée dans Grenade” — had more of its proper character. This was thoroughly enjoyable playing. But the third piece, “Jardins sous la pluie,” was a bit of a letdown. Something of a toccata, it needs to be light, and Mr. Blechacz was fairly heavy — missing his “leggierezza.”

After intermission, he turned to his bread and butter: Chopin. Before playing the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, he played two nocturnes — the ones from Op. 62, in B major and E major. Was it necessary to play these nocturnes (which are in keys related to B minor) before the B-minor sonata? Or were they just filler? I suspect the latter. Mr. Blechacz should have offered yet more variety.

The B-major nocturne is beguiling, but Mr. Blechacz did not beguile in it. He didn’t quite sing, for one thing. And we heard every note, instead of phrases or lines (if you know what I mean). On the plus side, he produced some lovely colors and did some good pedaling (which is crucial in this piece, as in other nocturnes). The E-major piece could have used more Classicism, a stronger spine. Like “Pagodes,” it had sort of a wobbly structure.

But the young man did himself proud in the B-minor sonata, that wonderful piece. The sonata is well suited to what seems to be his bold, masculine, devil-may-care style. Most of the sonata sounded smart and fresh. And Mr. Blechacz showed a fine sense of the architecture of the work.

The slow movement is one of the glories of the Romantic piano literature, and, indeed, one of the glories of the piano literature — it could have been straighter, which is to say, played more straightforwardly. But Mr. Blechacz wasn’t vulgar or otherwise indefensible. And he attacked the last movement like an adolescent tiger, fierce, brooding, and exciting. He was guilty of some overpedaling, and he can stand to clean up this music a little. But these are low-level complaints.

The people went mad for this tousle-haired youngster, screaming and stamping their feet. In due course, he sent them home with Chopin’s famous, beguiling Waltz in C-sharp minor, which was very stylish and idiomatic. Indeed, this was probably Mr. Blechacz’s best playing of the night.

He is brash, smiling, and talented. Even when he’s wrong, he’s not boring. He obviously enjoys playing the piano, and being a phenom. I like him a lot. You will too.

The New York Sun

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