“How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
Kaufmann Concert Hall at 92 Street Y
Johann Sebastian Bach: Four Duets, BWV 802-805
Ludwig van Beethoven: Rondo in G major, Op. 51, No. 2 – Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3
Fryderyk Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp minor, Op. 48, No. 2 – Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, “Funeral March”, Op. 35 – Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
Rafal Blechacz (piano)
R. Blechacz (© Hiroyuki Eto)
One of the first songs we hear in the famous American musical The Sound of Music is the mock lament of the nuns who don’t know how to deal with a wonderful girl who has so many wonderful qualities except... she is not ideally suited for a nun-hood. Somehow that song, and especially its first stanza, always comes to mind when I listen to the also- wonderful Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz, who also has so many wonderful qualities. In quoting the verse I allow myself to paraphrase a bit...
“Many a thing you know you’d like to tell him,
Many a thing he should understand,
But how do you make him stay and listen to all you say,
How do you give a sense to his right hand ?”
After having performed in almost all major New York concert venues, save for the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, this time Mr. Blechacz appeared at Theresa Kaufmann Hall at 92nd Street Y, which in all likelihood is acoustically superior to many of New York’s concert venues but at the same time it can be less than forgiving for pianists who try to hard to be heard (such was recently the case of Yefim Bronfman, known for his sometimes huge sound which was too huge there).
Mr. Blechacz usually plays safe when comes to the choice of repertory and this time was not an exception: a work of Bach, an early classical sonata, then perhaps some Debussy or Szymanowski and of course his calling card, Chopin. Chopin, because as we remember, Mr. Blechacz is not only a current winner of the most prestigious quadrennial Gilmore Artist Award but in 2005 he also won the famed International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw: a competition that in the past awarded prizes to such artists as Ashkenazy, Pollini, Argerich, Ohlsson, Zimerman and more recently Seong-Jin Cho, reviewed on this pages ici. Yes, it is a huge legacy and responsibility for the Laureate of the First Prize...
This recital followed pianist’s chosen model with a relatively seldom-offered Bach Four Duets, the popular Beethoven Sonata in C-Major, and a substantial selection of Chopin works which filled the second half.
If one were to consider Bach four polyphonic pieces as pedagogical material, their level of difficulty would fall between the Sinfonias (known as Three-part Inventions) and the more advanced fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier. In Mr. Blechacz reading we heard well-delineated entrances of voices, fastidious articulation and metronomic precision, if perhaps not much individuality. In other words, not an objectionable interpretation similar in approach to his previous Bach readings heard in his New York recitals.
Two Beethoven works followed, both written around 1797 though one would not have guessed it by just looking at the opus numbers. As played by the Polish pianist this amiable, gentle, good-natured Rondo in G major lacked the feeling of “gemütlichkeit”, of warmth and gentleness which we find in interpretations of truly great musicians as Kempff or Lupu. One would wish that the fast notes sounded like fast-moving melody rather than... just fast notes without much meaning. Other than that, it was a fine interpretation. I thought that even more convincing was the sonata which followed; it is the last of the three in an early opus No. 2 and conceived on a larger scale than the two previous ones. Blechacz adopted a very measured, controlled and stately approach which was especially impressive in the last two movements, which are often taken a break-neck speed. In the Scherzo, with deliciously outlined appearances of the opening figure, one would perhaps wish for the Trio to be taken in the same speed, but obviously our pianist thought otherwise and played it a tad slower: nothing wrong in that. All in all, it was a model of a traditional, middle-of-the-road interpretation without anything that could be questioned.
Except that there were two issues in this performance that caused my concern. The first one was Blechacz sound, which nowadays is very strong in fortes though rather indistinct in softer passages; somehow this pianist very rarely gets his instrument to sing under his fingers. This time the dynamic amplitude was very wide with the loud chords having the heft of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony whereas softer passages sounded like a small baroque ensemble using gut-strings. Yes, this hall can be unforgiving and Blechacz alas abundantly misjudged its lively acoustics. The second problem, perhaps even more acute, is something I have discovered at almost every performance of this pianist: it is a matter of misreading the scores and rhythmic sloppiness, which manifests itself as swallowing the ends of phrases. I am sorry for being about the only reviewer who seems to know the scores sufficiently to recognize incorrectly read chords in the works which don’t have, after all, the complexity of Boulez or Xenaxis. It is in the moments like this that the title of my review flashes before my eyes: for it is music we almost know by heart. It is a bit enigmatic and worrying to witness this type of carelessness exposed in an artist described as “one of the foremost in his generation”.
The second half of the program featured Chopin works previously not performed by Mr. Blechacz during his New York recitals. Fantaisie in F minor is a sprawling, rhapsodic, multi-sectional work hard to tie together. Here again we had a perfectly controlled execution, but too often the melody moved by measure rather than by phrase. This pianist shows near zero interest in bringing forth harmonic changes or bass lines so important in Chopin’s scores. One could hardly find a scintilla of a vocal line or rich, luscious sound. The Nocturne in F# minor featured a similarly synthetic sound and worse yet, a feeling of rushing and inquietude. That is not to say I am opposed to forward motion, but in Blechacz interpretation of the Nocturne’s outer parts I felt impatience and edginess.
Finally, the Sonata in B-flat minor, that most capricious, agitated and terrifying work, which Schumann describes as Chopin’s attempt to “tie together the four of his most unruly children”. In the first movement Blechacz let himself go, but the headlong tempo had moments of losing control, and did not allow for a great sense of narration. Especially rushed and garbled seemed to be the development section. Interestingly, Mr. Blechacz didn’t subscribe to the idea of repeating the first four-measure-long Grave in the first movement, and for that alone I salute him. In the Scherzo, taken at unhurried speed, there were moments of unsteadiness, and the Trio section sounded a bit perfunctory, as if pianist had not much interest in it. In the March, that most famous part of Sonata, we heard some beautiful tonal control, and yet in the middle cantilena section the descending figures were strangely never even. In the finale, which is in all Chopin’s music the most enigmatic and is harmonically decades ahead of his contemporaries, we are supposed to hear the wind sweeping over the graves (talk about a tone-painting!): under Blechacz accurate fingers this movement didn’t sound as terrifying as one would hope for: it was measured, composed, a tad matter-of-fact. I guess this still a work in progress and would be rather unlikely to bring its performer laurels at a competition.
The audience was predictably enthused and pianist granted us two Chopin encores: a nice, elegant version of Waltz in C-sharp minor (op. 64 No. 2) and, probably as a moment of humor, the shortest of the Preludes op. 28, the one in A Major (No. 7).
To come back to my opening lines and the quote from the Sound of Music. To my ears Mr. Blechacz is a perplexing musician: it seems to me that all the problems I noticed in his playing could be eliminated in one long lesson with a colleague or a friend with a good pair of ears who’d, as the song goes, “made him stay and understand”. Someone who’d not be afraid to say “Old chap, here and there you play the wrong chords and here and there you don’t honor the rests”. And maybe: “My friend, try to sing the melody and then play it the way you just sang it”. How long would it take? I hope that we should soon hear and see that “the problem like Maria (or like Rafal) was solved”. I wish him well and trust that he will listen, understand and that first and foremost there will be someone to tell him.