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A Touch of Elegance: Rafał Blechacz Recital
By Gary Lemco
PERFORMING March 21, 2013 under the aegis of Chamber Music San Francisco, Polish virtuoso Rafał Blechacz (b. 1985) presented a balanced program of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin at the Herbst Theatre, a charming combination of bravura skills and poetic sensibility that brought a thoroughly charmed audience to its collective feet after the second encore, Chopin’s perennial Prelude in A Major.
Blechacz, noted for his deft articulation and sense of color, opened with Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827. Originally entitled Clavier-Übung, the suite meant to provide both instruction and entertainment to performer and listener, the seven-movement piece’s opening with a scintillating Fantasie in 3/8 followed by traditional dances. Blechacz must be credited with making immediate audience contact, which remained genial and gracious throughout the afternoon. His direct attacks, swift and sure, did not belie the music’s dance impulse, despite the often brisk tempos Blechacz executed. The counterpoints in Bach flowed easily, less academic than natural, rhetorical gestures that moved through dances of national character. The Sarabande, of Spanish origin, belies its character in this suite, which Blechacz took at an andante tempo. The Courante demonstrated Blechacz’s handling of a steady pulse of sixteenth notes that still retained their singing tone. The final dance, Gigue, followed a Scherzo, a rare term in the Bach canon. This last movement, a contrapuntal demon in 12/8, had us agog at the clarity with which Blechacz could project its various lines and voices.
The first half of the recital concluded with a staple from Sviatoslav Richter’s Beethoven arsenal, the Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3 (1798), dedicated to Countess Margarete von Browne. What impresses in the work is the scale of the design, especially in the first movement, a festive Presto that challenges the limits of the keyboards available in Beethoven’s time, descending to a low F and rising to a high F-sharp. By the end of the movement, Beethoven’s audacity has become quite thick in texture, and Blechacz had his hands full to clarify the stretti that end the movement. The heart of the sonata lies in its Largo e mesto second movement, a poignant “sturm und drang” sadness that includes a three-note pattern later echoed in the Rondo: Allegro finale. Blechacz, however, did not linger on gloom and despair as the main ingredients in the Largo, rather emphasizing its active, lyric elements. The subtle hesitations of the ensuing Menuetto exerted their charms, especially as a balm to the preceding slow movement. The Rondo opens with a three-note assertion that soon assumes the quality of a broad and rollicking improvisation, lustily performed by Blechacz, who seems to have chosen well a Beethoven sonata that would grip us without overwhelming the Chopin group that constituted the remainder of the program.
Blechacz, of course, sports an impressive repute in the music of Chopin, and his set of seven pieces nicely balanced the Bach and Beethoven selections. The Nocturne in A-flat Major, Op. 32, No. 2, well known to us admirers of Les Sylphides. Blechacz rather hurried this nocturne, moving from its Lento to the more agitated F Minor, so that the drama became more significant than its melancholy nostalgia. Blechacz then progressed to the two 1839 Polonaises, Op. 40, opening with the perennial “Military” Polonaise in A Major. Here, we encountered less of the heroic impulse than the grand gesture, rather too quickly traversed, but still passionate and rhetorical, especially in the trio in D Major. Better suited to the Blechacz temperament came the C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2, whose grumblings and chromatic bass harmonies arrested our collective imagination. This piece exerts a fertile fascination for the listener in its introverted harmonies and wonderfully expressive middle section in A-flat Major. Blechacz took a well-earned pause after these first three elements in his Chopin group.
Blechacz returned with the Three Mazurkas, Op. 63 (1846): their invention in ambiguous rhythm and meter finds a complement in the idiosyncratic polyphony of Chopin’s late development. The B Major gave us dotted rhythms Vivace that moved down one step to A Major. The incredibly brief F Minor exhibited some fine-tuned rubato from Blechacz, so that its Lento marking achieved some personal color. The admired C-sharp Minor gravitates between waltz and national dance character. The martial central section, later marked con forza, had us in its grip, courtesy of Blechacz. The swirling canons and chromatics of the last page left us in rapt awe.
The final piece of the program proper, the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39 (1839) never fails to impress us with Chopin’s brilliant use of enharmonic relationships tonally, as well as his blistering use of chromatics to achieve a dramatic flourish. Blechacz instilled in this tightly-wrought piece much of its Lisztian fervor, almost in the manner of a ballade. The runs and cascading octaves had that liquid quality we admired so much in the performances by Ivan Moravec. Unhurriedly, rather basking in Chopin’s counterpoint and dramatic avalanches of sound and pregnant silences, Blechacz brought an enduring serenity to this innately turbulent piece. How natural then, as an encore, Blechacz proffered the A Minor Waltz, Op. 34, No. 3 (1838), a piece Chopin characterized as “full of melancholy, gloom, and grief, expressed in mournful simplicity.” The effect on the enthralled audience was to unleash a barrage of applause, but silence might have better saluted the efficacy of the performance. ♫
Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly contributes to Classical
Music Guide. He resides in California.
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