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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
24 Preludes op. 28 [39:15]
Prelude in A flat major [00:50]
Prelude in C sharp minor op. 45 [04:36]
2 Nocturnes op. 62 [13:13]
Rafał Blechacz (piano)

rec. July 2007, Hamburg-Harburg, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6592 [58:08]



A little while ago I worked my way through a fifteen-CD set documenting the 2005 Warsaw Chopin Competition, which Blechacz won. I was a little puzzled at some of those who made it to the finals, but I was left in no doubt that Blechacz’s first prize was fully deserved. Looking around at the various commentaries on the competition, I see there was complete unanimity over this, with many stressing the abyss between Blechacz and all the others. This was the first time since Krystian Zimerman’s victory in 1975 that a Polish pianist had won the competition, and for quite a while no first prize had been awarded at all. Now he is becoming a household name and has a contract with Deutsche Grammophon, of which this is the first fruit.

My impression was that Blechacz’s way with the dance-based pieces has a touch of genius to it. His Polonaise, Mazurkas and Concerto-finale were quite wonderful. His op.62/1 Nocturne was very beautiful but I wasn’t quite so immediately taken by his group of Preludes. For better or for worse, it is with the Preludes that he has chosen to make his bow on the international recording scene.

These tiny pieces are really incredibly difficult to get right. In the first I was impressed that he shows us more than most when the theme in the middle voice is syncopated and when it is on the beat. His literal observance of Chopin’s instruction to remove the pedal at the half-bar in the four measures before the closing arpeggiated chord, instead of at the end of each bar, is a minor revelation. On the other hand, his reversal of some of the dynamics risks restructuring the piece. In number 2, also, some of his dynamics go the opposite way compared with what is written, at least in the Henle edition. His virtually unpedalled number 3 is a neat demonstration that it can be done, but a little dry. Though you might find more pedalled versions messy once you’ve got this into your head.

If all this sounds like fussing over small points – but small points are proportionately big in tiny pieces – he shows in the fourth that he can create a brooding atmosphere and a sense of total absorption in what he is playing. After a notably withdrawn number 6, his seventh is surprisingly full-toned and sunlit. It is also very slow for an Andantino. The next piece is more majestic than "Molto agitato" and the twelfth lacks sheer demonic force, as does number 16. This quality is provided for number 22, however, and the last is imperiously passionate.

In the thirteenth his interplay between melody and countermelody is exquisitely done. I have never heard this piece played better. It is my candidate for the most beautiful of all the Preludes and few pianists get to the end without incurring my wrath somewhere along the line. I thought this just perfection. The same may be said of the ubiquitous number 15 and the beautifully sung number 21, with 17 and 19 not far behind. Number 23 is magical, not least in its placing of Chopin’s eerie E flats towards the end.

With a fair number of Preludes at the highest possible level and no actual failures – take my earlier points as queries more than reservations – this is bound to enter the select group of top contenders, especially for those who put poetry first. Blechacz is also pretty successful at presenting the Preludes as a unity, something on which Cortot very much insisted and at which he remains unsurpassed, whatever you think of details along the way.

For the record, Blechacz’s performances of 7-12 in the competition were not particularly different from the present ones, with the mellower DG recording a bonus.

The tiny A flat Prelude is beautifully turned. The larger op. 45 and the two Nocturnes bring something more. Op. 62/2 is sometimes considered a less than worthy conclusion to Chopin’s work in this oeuvre. Blechacz definitively proves this is not so, bringing patriotic ardour as well as magic. But indeed, I would hold up these three last pieces as touchstones of Blechacz’s current achievement. With their complete mastery of rubato, voicing and structure combined with expressive freedom, it is impossible to hear them without feeling that the tiny group of living great pianists is now a little larger.

This is a career to follow, so don’t miss out.

Christopher Howell

 

see also
Rafal Blechacz - Piano Recital
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 22 (1833-38) [16'04].
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Three Concert Studies: Waldesrauchen, S145 (1859) [4'08]; La Leggierezza, S144 (1844) [4'48]; Gnomenreigen, S145 (1844) [3'02].
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Suite bergamasque (1905) [17'24].
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)

Variations in B flat minor, Op. 3 (1901-3) [12'01].
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53 (1843) [6'58].
Rafal Blechacz (piano)
Rec. Pomeranian Philharmonic Concert Hall, Bydgoszcz, 2-5 April 2005. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD136-2 [66'04]

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