For its first piano recital of the current season, Duke Performances brought Rafal Blechacz back to Reynolds Theater for an impressive program that demonstrated in no uncertain terms why this artist's playing has captured the hearts and minds of music lovers around the globe. In his 20th year, the pianist cleaned house (literally) at the 2005 Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, taking home all the awards and prizes. He's been enchanting listeners ever since.
At Duke, he began with Bach's Partita No. 3, in A minor, S.827, delivering the music on a big piano with crystal clarity, thanks to very little pedal, refined dynamic sensibility, and keen interpretive insight. There was intense listening from the rapt audience as Blechacz projected, alternately, lyricism of the most engaging kind, intricate pianistic brilliance, heaven-sent serenity, and, overall, a surfeit of often-breath-taking keyboard delights. Here, too, as elsewhere during this program, there was refinement and delicacy and grace aplenty - he clearly has technique in astonishing abundance, but it's the music he consistently serves with his artistry.
There was more of this in Beethoven's Sonata No. 7, in D, Op. 10/1. Blechacz took off like a bat fleeing an exceedingly warm place - the speed of the opening movement prompted considerable conversation during the intermission - but the music was so clear that no lines were blurred, reminding one that fast tempi rarely sound rushed when the articulation is spot-on. The Presto movement was thus spell-binding in its brilliance, and in retrospect the playing made the visitor's insightful realization of the Largo seem even more profound than usual: there was an air of hushed mystery in this section rarely experienced in recital halls, to be sure. The third movement exuded poetry, and in the finale, wondrously wrought, there was plenty of power to cap the remarkable first half of this program.
The conjunction of Chopin, the composer with whose music Blechacz first commanded international attention, and Szymanowski, arguably the greatest Polish composer of the first part of the 20th century, was a stroke of programming genius. The visitor's Chopin - the Ballade No. 1 and the two Polonaises of Op. 26 - was everything for which one might have hoped: technically secure and glowing with insight, of course, but also far more introspective than one might have imagined - playing, in other words, that often suggested contemporaneous accounts of Chopin's own playing. There was plenty of drama in these renditions but the playing was nonetheless revelatory in many ways, in large measure due to Blechacz's admirable restraint.
And then came the evening's most highly-anticipated performance - Szymanowski's rarely-heard Sonata No. 1, in C minor, Op. 8 (1904). The composer left three sonatas and a considerable amount of other music for solo piano plus of course songs and orchestral music and a fabulous opera. The scores are often highly influenced by folk melodies and perfumes from the East, and artists like Artur Rubinstein championed the composer, but perhaps it is the sheer difficulty of the music that has shunted it to the sidelines of the repertory. This Sonata, with (as Susan Halpern's notes remind us) its overtones of Liszt and Franck, is a huge piece with a complex and dynamic first movement that allowed Blechacz to dazzle virtually non-stop. The slow, searching second movement contrasted admirably. That the composer was still looking to earlier models is clear in the somewhat anachronistic Minuet - an oddity, of course, in the 20th century - and the exciting finale - loaded up with equally unexpected fugal passages that suggested some of Brahms' keyboard works and of course Bach, with whose music this magnificent program had begun.
There were two Chopin encores, as deftly chosen as the rest of the program: a waltz (No. 3, in A minor, Op. 34/2) and a mazurka (No. 11, in E minor, Op. 17/2). The crowd, reluctant to let the artist go, floated away, enchanted.
Ah, to be at once so young, so thin, so dashing, and so talented! And just think: his contemporaries today could, with luck, experience Blechacz's artistry for another 60 years or more.
We missed his Duke debut on March 5, 2010. For sure, we will not miss another performance by Blechacz there!
Speaking of Chopin, I'd be remiss not to mention the finest collection of recordings to emerge from the recent bicentennial year: Ward Marston's 4-CD set, "A Century of Romantic Chopin," features 90 selections played by 65 pianists, recorded between 1895 (yes!) and 2003. For details, see http://www.marstonrecords.com/chopin/chopin_tracks.htm.
This admirable series of recitals continues November 30 when Piotr Anderszewski offers music by Bach, Schumann, and Janáček, whose music turns up hereabouts as infrequently as Szymanowski's. Be there!
PS Duke Performances' Aaron Greenwald announced that when renovations of Baldwin Auditorium, on the East Campus, are completed, these recital programs and other classical concerts will move there. Three cheers!