085: Minibreaks

Noun: minibreaks – Plural form of minibreak.

TODAY on flaglock: Julian ponders aimlessly and continues to profess his love for Rafał Blechacz in a completely heterosexual way.

I often think about just how small I am. It’s not a sexual thing: it’s an existential thing. Earth is dwarfed by our sun, which is dwarfed by our galaxy, which is dwarfed by the bigger system, which is dwarfed by the sheer size of the whole kaboozle of a universe.

And then everything seems so petty and trivial. The pursuit of philosophy, which is a moving target; the study of mathematics and sciences, which will someday end in the complete truth and cease to develop…

We won’t be around for very long. If we don’t kill ourselves first, then the earth will someday be unable to support us; and if we get around that, the sun will eventually go out and leave us cold and dark.

This is not some “don’t-worry-about-it” thing that we throw into the future to deal with. We begin dealing with it NOW, or never do, meaning that we consign ourselves to certain death.

Suddenly my GPA doesn’t seem all-important.

I don’t know how my internal views coexist so well. There’s one side of me that hates myself for a variety of reasons, and then there’s this side that’s almost conciliatory and soothing, assuring me “Nothing matters. Whatever you do, it’s insignificant and useless. It’s all right.” My emotional health balances on a tight-rope between these two, with some weird scary abyss hanging out far below.

I look within myself with horror. Not the Mister Kurtz deal, but more of a “I can’t identify myself.” If you uncoupled my soul from my mind and stuck it in a lineup, I probably couldn’t identify which one it was. And that wouldn’t be any good, because I’d be stuck as a gray lump of brain tissue wandering around.

Answer me this: why do I matter? Don’t give me the usual garbage. “Everybody exists for a reason.” Be specific, please. “God’s designs.” NO. “Everybody is unique, and everybody is special!” So you’re telling me that I exist as one of trillions and trillions of possible permutations of genetics and circumstance that could mold a human being? That’s rather depressing. “You came here to make people happy.” Ha, ha-ha. Hahahahaha! That’s rich. For whom exactly was I made to please? “You’re you and you are a valuable person.” You’re repeating yourself. I’m still just a mathematical endgame.

I’d never seen Mom and Dad and Sis all dressed up in black at the same time, and definitely not bright and early on a Saturday morning. As per my wish, the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G Minor was played. There were no mourners. Dad knew better than to get the paid ones; that would have made me mad, dead as I was. Nobody gave speeches; I hated empty flattery, especially the postmortem variety. In fact, nobody was in attendance at the sad affair, save the family. That was not unexpected; my spirit wasn’t roused by this. I hadn’t left behind many fond memories in anyone’s minds.

My gravestone was a carefully carved rectangular prism, bearing my name in boldface. It was subtitled “Gdzie Skarb Twój, Tam i Serce Twoje.” That was a meaningless statement for the dead, but a powerful one for the living. 

How strange, I thought, to be the only species that actively mourns its dead. Bemused, I nonetheless passed on without complaint. 

I’m still in the bad habit of pessimism, and verbosity to boot.

NOW PLAYING: Maurice Ravel – Piano Concerto in G – I. Allegramente (8:35); by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Philharmonia Orchestra, Ettore Gracis; Piano Concertos – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli – Track 1/9

Music: it heals all wounds. I’ll talk about good ol’ Rafał Blechacz instead.

At last, almost three years behind the curve, I’ve laid hands on Rafał Blechacz’s new (er, old?) recording of the two Chopin concertos.

Some preliminary material: we’ve long since established that Blechacz has the technical chops for attacking a great many pieces; enjoying his music-making then becomes a matter of whether or not you agree with his emotional interpretation.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as too fast or too slow for Blechacz: he goes exactly at the pace he wants to, as he thinks the music requires. As I’ve said before, Blechacz does not need to resort to cheap tricks to elicit excitement. His playing is not plagued by bravura or excessive virtuosity. You can HEAR his skill in every note, but he doesn’t flash it like a shiny badge.

I would also like to praise Jerzy Semkow and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam for their exemplary performance: the pairing differs quite a bit from Antoni Wit with the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; and different is good. Both conductor and orchestra (and concert hall – this could validate a trip to Amsterdam) have been showered with praise. I approach them, however, with a clean slate, having never heard of either before now (and I hang my head for that).

Some additional credit for the piano technician Michel Brandjes and the Tonmeister (recording engineer) Rainer Maillard. My layman’s ears make me think that they have done their jobs well. The tone quality seems true enough to life.

The album consists of the two piano concertos (as published, not as composed – heh) and nothing more, nothing less. No Rondo la Krakowiak. No Fantasy on Polish Airs. No Variations on something-something. No Grande Polonaise in E-flat. (I can dream, can’t I?)

In fact, Blechacz has already recorded the Concerto in E minor before – he did so late in 2005 at the finals of the Chopin Competition XV with (as mentioned) Antoni Wit conducting the Warsaw Philharmonic. That performance will probably live on in history for the audience reaction: after the pianist finishes one last shining run up the piano, the orchestra is tasked with closing the work with a few chords in E. They don’t get the chance to do so, though, before a woman’s scream is heard and a little section of the audience leads a stampede of applause that almost drowns out the end of the concerto amid cries of “Bravo!” &c.

Neither Blechacz’s clarity nor modesty of style has changed in the years since that recording. He still plays with that same gentle touch that never overpowers or gets in your face. There are no missed notes, no smeared notes, no subverted points of articulation. It’s the details that make him shine: the scales of inhuman evenness, the trills of such controlled symmetry, the leaps and jumps across the keyboard that never ring harshly …

It’s obvious that technique is but the entry-level requirement for any concert pianist, but it’s important to understand that I’m rubbing in that field on Blechacz’s part so diligent because it’s positively AMAZING. There is not even room for the SHADOW of a doubt that he has good technique, because he leaves absolutely no room for smudges, slips, or other imperfections in the recording. (This approach is unlike, for example, Horowitz and Argerich.) You can have a hundred percent confidence that Blechacz has the FULL technique – not half, not most, not “just shy of all of it” – ALL of it – down pat. He gives himself no room to hide in his playing; and so the listener can be assured that it is all completely honest.

But you can’t say that Blechacz is all technique and no expression. He simply chooses not to rely on such a marked gradient of expression to fill his palette. Picking two other recordings at random, with names off the top of my head, confirms this; Argerich and Van Cliburn: oh man oh man, but they know how to milk their fortissimos. There’s nothing wrong with that: I’m merely stating a marked preference for Blechacz really knowing how to milk his pianissimos.

Enough with the comparisons. There will be no honest, unbiased criticism of Blechacz here: there will only be oversung, much-parroted praises of his playing.

So what can I praise specific to this recording?

For starters, this is Blechacz’s first move into the concerto repetoire. He has previously released a lot of works for solo piano (and if memory serves he’s not planning on recording chamber music any time soon), but this is a first in the field of really large-scale collaborative works. As always, he delivers: we have on our hands a sensitive and well-baked reading of the two Chopin concertos. His usual crystal-clear playing continues to lay the groundwork for a colorful tenure of wonderful recordings that will be enjoyed by all. He has not cut himself slack. He’s working hard.

In a way, the slew of Chopin that Blechacz has recorded (the complete preludes, and now the concertos) kind of makes up for the incomplete set that he performed for the competition. One only wonders when he will record the mazurkas …

And so, the Concerto in F Minor is a welcome addition to the collection. This work is, above all else, soft and sweet – especially so in Rafał’s hands. This is where the piano gains its long-sought cantabile tone – if you really want to hear a piano sing, Blechacz is your man. The second movement is worth paying extra attention to. The third movement lets Blechacz run out a bit, stretch his fingers, and show off how clean he is at high velocity. The whirlwind finale features a delightful tempo change, artfully set off by the bassoonist (I think) speeding up suddenly with due warning. The piano and orchestra dance and spin around, and then with one last tripping ascension up the piano, the concerto ends.

The ascending ending is what elicited my earlier “neither too fast nor too slow” comment: I’ve heard other people play that ending significantly quicker than does Blechacz.

And the Concerto in E Minor? Nothing you haven’t heard before, though the orchestra stands out much more than it did in the competition recording. The technique is all there (minus the very few little slips that he made) and the expressionism is all there, too! I have heard accusations of “loss of youthful vigor” on Amazon, but I disagree: Blechacz by default is simply a little cautious. This does not make him stupid, slow, or senile (and when he’s eighty, just watch him out-play everybody anyway); it simply marks him as desirous of a slightly different tone.

I personally still found the e minor concerto full of a lovely range of expressions – the first movement great and dramatic, the second fond and dainty, the third light-hearted and playful. Again, this is all happy music in Chopin’s book – it makes sense that the good feelings outshine the bad. Nor do I necessarily correlate “fire” with happiness – the fire, again, is in Blechacz’s powerhouse technique. His interpretation is conservative just because. “Just because.” Hah.

The hidden jewel in this work, in my opinion, is the section which allows the piano to sing cantabile twice: before and around the nine-minute mark of the first movement. It helps that the orchestra backs with velvet strings, but I firmly maintain that the shining sound comes mostly from the playing of the soloist (at the competition, Jacek Kortus played with comparable tone; Dong Min Lim and Takashi Yamamoto, not so much).

To wrap things up, I’ll finish by concluding that this album is very much worth your money. Just throw your money at the Yellow Label already, we don’t want them going anywhere, any time soon.

I’ve run out of things to parrot-and-praise, so I’ll prune the prattling.



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