Take That, Elevated Expectations!

The thoughtful and elegant young Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz was doing very well — an international career, a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon — even before he was named the seventh recipient of the 2014 Gilmore Artist Award in January. This grant of $300,000 is bestowed upon an unsuspecting pianist every four years by the Gilmore Foundation in Michigan, determined by jury members who attend candidates’ concerts secretly. Along with the heightened recognition, the award brings raised expectations.

So there was extra curiosity about Mr. Blechacz’s recital on Thursday night at Zankel Hall. He raised expectations further by his program, which included some of the most familiar pieces in the repertory, including Bach’s “Italian” Concerto and Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. After intermission he played eight works by Chopin, among them the “Minute” Waltz and that other favorite, the Waltz in C sharp minor.

The risk in offering such often-heard repertory is that a pianist will be tempted to do something novel for novelty’s sake to make an interpretation stand out. But Mr. Blechacz (pronounced BLEH-hatch) found subtle ways to uncover freshness and spontaneity in these scores.

Mop-haired and slender, the 29-year-old Mr. Blechacz began with a crisp, clearheaded account of the “Italian” Concerto. In the “Pathétique,” rather than maximizing the grim drama and intensity of the first movement, he played with sobering directness and fascinating attention to inner details. The slow movement was wistfully lyrical. He revealed the tension lurking below the undulant surface of the rondo that ends the sonata.

Mr. Blechacz, who is pursuing a doctorate in music philosophy at a university in Poland, has spoken insightfully about the Polish elements of Chopin’s music. For this recital he began with a tender, melting account of the Nocturne in E (Op. 62, No. 2). Rather than race through the “Minute” Waltz, he took a lithe tempo that allowed the spinning notes in the right hand to speak. He excelled in Three Mazurkas (Op. 56), especially the tragic final Mazurka in C minor, played with somber resignation and rich colorings.

He ended with Chopin’s stormy Polonaise in F sharp minor (Op. 44), a performance that captured all the craggy intensity of the music, which curiously breaks into a beguiling mazurka-like middle section.

Mr. Blechacz, it seemed, wanted to end the evening with this astonishing piece and not play an encore. The audience would not stop applauding, though, so he complied with the impish scherzo from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 2 in A.

But I am still thinking about that fitful polonaise.


/The New York Times, 24.10.2014 Anthony Tommasini/