Pianist Rafal Blechacz coming to Ann Arbor for Chopin and more
photo by Felix Broede
To be a pianist and travel around the world playing: that was the dream Rafal Blechacz had at age 11, when he won his first piano competition in his native Poland.
At 20, the unassuming young man from a small town in northern Poland came to Warsaw, to play in the 2005 International Chopin Competition. He won not just the competition — becoming the first Pole to win the prize since Krystian Zimerman 30 years earlier — but every category: polonaise, mazurka, sonata and concerto. And now, at just under 26, he is realizing his dream.
“Chopin’s music close to my personality, and thanks to his music, I can play all over the world,” he said unassumingly in a January phone conversation from Poland.
His upcoming U.S. tour takes him to Ann Arbor for two concerts, courtesy of the University Musical Society. Friday, he plays a solo recital at Hill Auditorium — Mozart, Debussy, Szymanowski and lots of Chopin (polonaises, mazurkas and the first two ballades). Feb. 13, at Rackham Auditorium, he joins with members of Concertante for the first Chopin piano concerto.
Blechacz said he is looking forward to seeing Ann Arbor. “But I’ve heard it’s cold.”
That’s true, but his playing — poetic, nuanced, sparkling and flexible — should warm us all. (For a preview, turn to YouTube, his website or one of his now several recordings).
For Blechacz (pronounced BLE-chatz), the Sunday concert will be his first performance of the concerto without full orchestra, and without a conductor.
“But I know this version because I have a lot of recordings,” he said. “I am very interested in the chamber version. And I love this concerto. I have wonderful memories of this concerto. I played it in the finals of the Chopin competition and I am excited to play it in the United States.”
Blechacz loves the concerto’s harmonies and moving moments, he said, and he has loved playing it with Polish conductors at the helm of the orchestra.
“In the third movement, there is a Polish dance rhythm — Polish conductors feel that atmosphere in the concerto.”
So, to paraphrase that old Levy’s rye bread ad, do you have to be Polish to play Chopin?
“It maybe sometimes be helpful to be Polish,” he said. “But not always. We have a lot of pianists and artists, like Pollini and Argerich, who play Chopin music extremely well. But sometimes I feel in the mazurkas and polonaises maybe it’s helpful. Especially with ‘tempo rubato,’ which is a very typical element of Romantic and Chopin music.”
Blechacz agrees that the mazurkas, while not technically difficult, can pose interpretive problems for the pianist.
“Five years ago, I wanted to record all of them,” he said, “but I feel it’s impossible. Sometimes in concert, I play faster and slower, depending on the acoustics, the instrument and the audience. In the studio, it’s hard to chose the right version for the recording.”
So we are lucky to hear a set of these, from Op. 41, in Blechacz’s recital Friday. Blechacz said he paired the Debussy on the bill — “L’isle joyeuse” — with Szymanowski (the Sonata No. 1) because he wanted “to show the contrast between impressionism and expressionism can be interesting for the audience and the people.”
“The two composers are completely different,” he added. “Szymanowski is not so popular in the U.S. and in Europe, even not so much in my country. When I was 12, maybe 11, I attended a concert where I heard his music, and I was delighted by it. After the Chopin win, I played the Variations Op. 3 in b-flat minor quite often in recitals, and the audience liked this piece very much. They were very enthusiastic. I decided to record it for Deutsche Grammophon and to play his music during my concerts. The c minor sonata is a big piece, four movements, a lot of expression and contrasts, lots of combinations of sounds, and nice melodies. The harmonies are very interesting, the modulations especially.”
And then the whole second half of the program is Chopin.
Winning the Chopin competition “was my dream, of course,” Blechacz said, “but mainly I didn’t expect the result of the competition would be so good for me. When we had the final results after the final stage, it was absolutely a great moment for me.”
Blechacz may have been surprised at his sweep of all the prizes, but, he said, “I had a strategy. I didn’t listen to other pianists during the competition, I didn’t listen to newspaper or radio. I concentrated on my interpretation. I wanted to be concentrated only on my music. I didn’t know the level of the competitors. It helped me a lot to keep a balance in my program.”
Blechacz’s early aspirations were to be an organist.
“My parents are not musicians,” he said, “but there was a piano in the house, and it was very important to have the contact quite early. I started my musical education with the organ, though. I was fascinated by the organ, and many of the musical memories from my childhood are of going to the church and listening to the organ being played. I wanted to be an organist, but then I tried the piano, and I realized it was probably the right instrument for me.”
Still, he gave an organ concert at the church in his town as recently as last year. And, he said, “the polyphonic thinking” that he gained as an organist is very helpful, “especially in Chopin music.”
“Playing the organ can help in piano interpretation,” he said. “On the organ you can change the colors easily. On the piano you can only make those changes with your fingers. But you can think about organ music to find the color, the balance between the left and right hand.”
Asked whom he admires as a Chopin player, Blechacz cites Rubinstein, Zimerman and Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski. Though not well known in the U.S., Koczalski was a student of Karol Mikuli, who was Chopin’s student and assistant (and an editor of Chopin’s works). “He had a lot of suggestions from Mikuli about the interpretation of Chopin,” Blechacz said.
Have a listen to Koczalski on YouTube, too, and you’ll discover one more wonderful Chopin player to add to your list.