21 April 2013
Today’s music I will not forget so fast. His words, however, are starting to fade – so I will quickly transcribe from memory (ugh. I think much of it will be paraphrasing) what I remember of our exchange at the CD signing:
J: Hi, Rafał! [hands over CD, liner notes taken out] Please, could you tell me when your new CD of Chopin’s polonaises will be released?
J: Your new recording with DG, of the Chopin –
RB: Oh, yes, that album. So you saw the website? I think they had the cover.
J: Yes, I was wondering if you could tell us when that would be released.
RB: Mmm – yes, it will be released in the autumn. [signs liner notes reverse]
J: Do you think you’ll ever record Rachmaninoff?
RB: I do not know.
J: Could you also sign the CD?
RB: But it’s a blue marker [holds up sharpie], is that okay?
J: It’s fine. Please do!
RB: [signs CD] All right. Thank you!
J: Good luck with your PhD! Please do release an English translation of your thesis so we can read it too. Thank you so much, Rafał!
There was a lot of nodding and nervous smiling on my part that I left out of that. I’m just absolutely floored that I met the greatest living pianist face-to-face and talked with him! (Anne kindly took a picture of us, too; he’s got such a nice smile…)
Many thanks to Anne for putting up with my mad fanboy mannerisms all afternoon. Mad props, too; I’m quite good at driving people up the wall, and you didn’t seem affected. Additional thanks for the tissue when I cut my finger open; it really helped.
The biggest “thank you” of all goes to Rafał himself, of course, for providing us with an unforgettable afternoon of music. Perhaps two years ago, I would have nodded off halfway through the Bach (getting no sleep last night didn’t help this point); today, I was wide awake and completely at attention for every note (I spaced out a tiny bit between the second and third mazurkas, thinking about something troubling).
Rafał is an artist who’s not limited to being “the person on stage.” In his retirement, I bet he’d make a wonderful friend and an excellent conversationalist. Compare this to … say, Sergei Rachmaninoff. His artistry is beyond doubt, but the “six-foot scowl” (according to Igor Stravinsky) part of him marks him initially as somebody a bit harder to keep up with. (Some sources dispute this. I don’t know. I’m illustrating an example.) Rafał, on the other end, is so gentlemanly that you could hardly fail to also like him as a person. His playing is, in some ways, a caricature of his personality, too, I think; it shows in his conservative style and crystal-clear, lucid musicality. You take one look at him (or cock one ear at him) and you judge him to be a kind, warm, good person.
His voice is soft and not very deep. You get the impression he’s still young (which he is), younger than he already is. His stage presence isn’t imposing, but it’s honest: it’s not pretentious or show-offy; it is neither artificial nor forced. It’s just him.
And, let’s not forget his line of work: as an artist he is incomparable. Today’s program:
J.S. Bach – Partita No. 3 in A minor
L.v. Beethoven – Sonata in D Major, Op. 10 No. 3
F. Chopin – Nocturne in A-flat Major, Op. 32, No. 2; Two Polonaises, Op. 40; Three Mazurkas, Op. 63; Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39
Encores: F. Chopin – Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2; Prelude No. 7 in A major, Op. 28.
The partita was excellent; I’ve only ever heard Blechacz play Bach in a small clip on YouTube, a bit from one of the Italian Concertos. Not only was this a chance for Rafał to show off his polyphonic chops, his cleanliness with the pedal and perfectly formed ornaments were a delight to hear.
Then Rafał turned to Beethoven – and boy, did he bring the house down for that. I’ve said this a million times, and I’ll say it again: in no way was his playing electrifying. It was, however, pure and good and true. It was art. I really enjoyed his playing of the second movement (Largo e mesto); it was a tragic segment that we have not heard much of from Rafał yet, not in his recordings.
After the intermission, we were treated to an all-Chopin gala: the gorgeous nocturne, all wrapped up in silk, was ear therapy for me. Anne wasn’t so fond of it, criticizing his articulation; I myself didn’t find anything wrong with it. In fact, I have a feeling that I prefer Rafał’s interpretation over Evgeny Kissin’s / Yundi Li’s (the other two references I have).
Our views diverged again for the first of the two polonaises. I felt that the first in A major wasn’t exactly up to Rafał’s standards of perfection. It was nonetheless a triumph; that much we agreed on. Even now, though, I’m still puzzling over whether or not he hit a pretty sour wrong note at one point. I’m starting to convince myself I was hallucinating.
The second polonaise, in C minor, was free from complaint – and I instantly decided that I much preferred Rafał’s playing over Kissin’s, which by contrast is too forceful. In the same way, I also found the polonaise in A major greatly enjoyable – because Blechacz knows how to control his touch, how to put piano and piece through their full range of proper dynamics. I’m drooling with anticipation over these pieces, because I’m sure that I’ll be able to hear them again in the autumn.
The three mazurkas were played one after the other, practically on top of each other without pause – I think Rafał wanted to avoid applause in between these shorter pieces. I remember my first mazurka (in D major) – and I didn’t enjoy it at all. But Rafał’s playing brought me home; his recordings for the Chopin Competition 2005 showed me the way, and today his performance of the three confirms my love to be right and proper. They are beautiful and delicate creatures, some of Chopin’s smallest (but by no means least artistic) pets. And Rafał gave them the royal treatment.
The program was rounded off with a jaw-dropping, house-downing (heh) rendition of the third scherzo. No, it was not as fast as so-and-so (probably Horowitz, eh?). No, it was not as “cool” as so-and-so (Horowitz fans must really hate me by now). But that’s not the point: Rafał’s selling points were most convincing, in the soft and lyrical sections of the scherzo, where the pianist “bubbles” down the keyboard in a sparkling show of technique. All this was articulated with the greatest care and the finest technique and the most careful pedaling, to produce an absolute masterpiece which I also hope will be committed to the recording studio soon. I sprang to my feet with the last note, clapping as hard as I’d ever done.
We were lucky. We got one encore – the waltz in A minor. Unfortunately my only two references for this are from the Chopin Competition (that playing wasn’t bad, actually) and from Kissin live at Carnegie Hall (good, but Rafał matched him closely again). It was good. I won’t repeat the other superlatives already exhausted on the other parts of the program.
When we refused to let him off without a second encore, he came to the stage in good humor and (with a big smile) gave us the prelude in A major. It was slow, short, and sweet. It was, as Anne said, “goodbye.” A roar of laughter went up with the last note, only to be quickly drowned by thunderous applause as the audience jumped to its feet one last time.
I was, of course, halfway down the stairs at this point, making for the line to sign CDs. I wasn’t taking any chances. And the rest, I have already told.
In closing, I should note that the Herbst Theatre is a nice venue, but hardly the first-class concert hall that suits Rafał. One can only hope that he may someday play at Davies Symphony Hall, for example, in a solo recital.
I look forward to the new album in the fall and Rafał’s eventual return circle around the states with a new program – I don’t know when that will be, but I anticipate it with a starved wallet and a big smile. God bless you, Rafał Blechacz.