Blechacz, exquisite sonority

 Madrid. National Auditorium (Symphonic Hall). 7-VI-2022. XXVII Cycle of great performers of the Scherzo Foundation. Rafał Blechacz, piano. Works by Bach, Beethoven, Franck and Chopin.

Third visit (the previous ones in 2011 and 2013) of the Polish Rafał Blechacz (Nakło nad Notecią, 1985), brilliant winner of the Chopin competition in 2005, to the Great Performers cycle. Blechacz, whom Nacho Castellanos and I recently interviewed for SCHERZO. In these times in which many pianists (and, let's not deceive ourselves, many masters) strive to achieve a degree of super-perfect precision in a mechanism that must also perform with overwhelming brilliance (preferably at great speed), it is too often left by the wayside to place concern for sound as a priority. It is preferable (and too often competitions do little to help this) to hit the notes well and quickly than to demonstrate a refined sound with a carefully rounded timbre.

That is why it is especially valuable and attractive to find someone like Blechacz who, in addition to possessing enviable agility and mechanical precision, places concern for sound among the highest priorities, with stupendous results. Blechacz's sound is beautiful throughout its very wide dynamic range: round, powerful in the fortissimos and of exquisite lightness in the pianissimos, with great projection and resonance, and never bordering on ugliness, harshness or shrillness.

This was already evident in the first work of the programme, Bach's Partita No. 2 in C minor BWV 826, possibly one of the most beautiful in the series and perhaps one of the most frequently favoured by pianists. Blechacz approached it with appropriate grandeur in the introductory section of the opening Symphony, beautiful singing in the Andante of the same and clear drawing of the counterpoint in the final fugue, in which one can only point out a speed perhaps a little excessive for the ideal clarity of the discourse, something that was repeated on some other occasions throughout the recital. The dances and nuances that followed were well understood, with measured pedal and exquisite digital legato, especially the magnificent Sarabande. It should be noted again that, at least for this writer, both the Rondeau and the final Capriccio, developed at great speed, would have benefited in their clarity with a point less of tempo flare. The repetitions were scrupulously respected and no embellishments were introduced.

Sonata No. 5, the first of Beethoven's Op. 10, in the same key of C minor as the Bachian partita, is still an early work, before the turn of the century. It still has post-Thaydnian overtones but anticipates, in more than one energetic outburst, some later work in the same key. It arrived in its first movement (Allegro molto e con brio) with special emphasis on the first part of the indication, but it certainly had plenty of energy and decisiveness (rather than clarity of speech), without losing its charm in the second theme. The Adagio molto was well sung, and the Prestissimo was overwhelming, which again could have been brought into sharper focus, without losing force, with a little less speed. The tempo applied is probably more viable in a piano of the period than in today's more resonant ones.

The great deaf man's 32 WoO 80 variations are somewhat later, and from the brief theme they hardly give any respite, because of the brevity of the course of each of them, except for the much longer and more elaborate last one, which seems to enter into an ambition of design that bears little relation (in terms of the extent of its elaboration) to what preceded it. Blechacz drew them with his customary sonorous care and exquisite nuance, achieving in general a result superior to that of the Sonata, with special mention for the elegance of variations V and VII, the beautiful drawing of XVII (in minor mode) and XXVIII.

After the interval, the work that probably marked the high point of the recital awaited. César Franck's Prelude, Fugue and Variation is the third of the six organ pieces op. 18 dedicated to the organist Saint-Saëns, later arranged for piano by Harold Bauer, and later also by Ignaz Friedman. Despite the more than satisfactory transfer to piano, the organistic echoes are obvious. And here Blechacz gave a masterly performance from start to finish. A connoisseur of the organ, an instrument he also cultivated in his early training, the Pole drew the Prelude with truly extraordinary grandeur, solemnity and sonorous splendour. Superbly tied speech, thrilling singing with perfect legato and a precise understanding of the peculiar resonance demanded by the page. Counterpoint exquisitely delineated in the Fugue, and elegant, refined and beautifully expressive in the Variation, cruelly killed off at the beginning by an inclement motive of the kind that would have justified the best rages of the Don Clodomiro of the day.

The recital could not be without the house speciality: Chopin. Blechacz offered us the Third Sonata, a mature work by his compatriot. The aforementioned qualities of sound, agility and precision, measured pedal and wide and well graduated dynamics were once again in evidence in an intense performance, rich in passion and emotion. In the Allegro maestoso, the first part of the indication had more weight, with an outstanding left hand, and the singing of the second theme was beautifully and admirably drawn. Undoubted energy in the conclusion, which unleashed some (for me, surprisingly in such a well-known work) applause at the end (Blechacz even got up to salute, as they did not cease). The Scherzo, indicated Molto vivace, responded even with excess to the indication, and despite Blechacz's formidable fingers, which even at that speed do not seem to lose precision, he did lose sharpness in drawing. The Largo, serene, never drooping, was sung with exquisite refinement and careful emotion, at just the right point of balance that exposes fine sensitivity but steers clear of syrupiness. The pianissimo of the final section is certainly one to remember. The final Presto non tanto came with energy, determination and brilliance, but with balance in terms of speed. The many florid passages were dispatched with insulting perfection and elegance, responding with implausible exactitude to Chopin's demand for a leggiero touch which, in such moments of high speed and fiery passion, are indeed tricky.

The success was, as might have been expected, very great. Blechacz reiterated his elegant refinement and exquisite sonority in a delightful reading of Chopin's own Waltz op. 64 no. 2 in C sharp minor, and, curiously, as Josep Colom also did, in the very short Prelude no. 7 of his compatriot's op. 28. An excellent concert by a pianist who has formidable means and uses them with personality, sensitivity and elegance.

/Madrid,Scherzo Magazin, 08.06.2022 Rafael Ortega Basagoiti/