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Posted on Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 11:26 p.m.

Rafal Blechacz virtuosic in concert at Hill Auditorium

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

My husband looked at his watch as pianist Rafal Blechacz took a last bow at Hill Auditorium Friday evening. “Aren’t they required to play till 10 o’clock?” he asked.

Well, no. 9:53 p.m. will do it, if they play fast and play well and offer one scherzo (Beethoven, Op. 2, No. 2) as an encore. All of which the 25-year-old Blechacz did in an engrossing University Musical Society debut recital of works by Mozart, Debussy, Szymanowski and Chopin.

With the second half of the recital devoted entirely to Chopin, it wasn’t hard to see why Blechacz, who swept all the prizes in the 2005 International Chopin Competition, the first Polish pianist to do so since Krystian Zimerman 30 years earlier, so captivated the judges. But he had much to say for himself in the works he chose for the program’s first half.

What he had to say, he said quickly in the Mozart that opened the program — the highly virtuosic Nine Variations in C Major on “Lison dormait,” K. 264; fast tempi were a hallmark of the evening. But he spoke clearly — occasionally there was a hole where a syllable seemed to get swallowed — and in pearly tones. His speech had balance and humor and dazzle equal to the musical writing. The playing was both effervescent and evanescent.

The Debussy that followed, the composer’s “L’isle joyeuse,” was also notable for its clarity. Here, as in his Chopin and in the first Szymanowski sonata, his playing was wonderfully stereophonic, projecting the music’s many layers while never neglecting to direct the ear to the main event. To the brightness others appropriately bring to Debussy, or even to Mozart, Blechacz responds with luster and roundness. But there is brightness in his playing. There is light in his cat’s-paw touch. And brightness that from rhythmic vitality and flexibility — immeasurable assets that he used compellingly throughout the evening, with naturalness and taste combined.

In the Szymanowski, the least familiar of the works on the bill, for example, the listener could appreciate Blechacz’s utter clarity about where the interest was — who had the tune — in the complex outer movements. He was as good a guide in the inner movements — the plush Adagio and the graceful, lightly plucked Minuetto.

As nice as it was to make friends with the Szymanowski, I’ll wager most patrons came for the Chopin — more of which is coming Sunday afternoon when Blechacz is set to join with the chamber group Concertante at Rackham Auditorium for the first Chopin piano concerto.

Friday evening, Blechacz offered a generous helping of the composer everyone will turn out to hear — the first two Ballades; the Op. 26 polonaises; and the four mazurkas of Op. 41 — and it was no drawing-room Chopin that Blechacz brought into the spotlight. No, if you wanted to swoon, you had to swoon over the lack of dawdling, the straightforward way Blechacz had of moving through a line, simplicity at its best. The directness of his playing was admirable, and so, too, was his rhythmic acuity and nuance, his sensitivity to the hierarchy of the beats.

In the first Ballade, the five-note upbeat to the first theme sounded natural in a way it rarely does; a little body English made the syncopations near the end push the music thrillingly headlong. In the polonaises, Blechacz brought out inner lines and melodies; the second of the two, the e-flat minor, was stunning for the way in which Blechacz reconciled its upright carriage and its nightmare whirl. Blechacz showed that the Op. 41 mazurkas, though miniatures, are worlds in themselves, vistas that expand and fold in on themselves in no time at all. He closed with a powerful performance of the second Ballade, letting the piano ring with Chopin’s torrents and cascades before clearing the pedal for the final notes. It was a master touch. Stay tuned for more to come.

Susan Isaacs Nisbett is a free-lance writer who covers classical music and dance for


Jeff Gaynor

Sun, Feb 13, 2011 : 6:42 p.m.

I agree, Blechacz was clear, and brilliant. I am eagerly looking forward to his performance this afternoon. Having said that, however, his playing of the Ballade #1 did not make me swoon, as has happened as I've listened to a few more mature, soulful pianists. Perhaps in 5-10 years...