Gilmore winner Blechacz makes a powerful yet disappointing Chicago debut

Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 2:54 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Rafal Blechacz made his Chicago recital debut Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Rafal Blechacz made his Chicago recital debut Friday night at Mandel Hall.

There was clearly great anticipation for the Chicago debut of Rafal Blechacz. The Polish musician won the Gilmore Artist Award earlier this year, a prestigious honor granted to pianists of exceptional promise every four years (previous winners include Leif Ove Andnes, Piotr Anderszewski, Ingrid Fliter, and Kirill Gerstein).

Blechacz’s recital Friday night at Mandel Hall drew a notably large audience for this University of Chicago Presents event. Yet considering the 28-year-old pianist’s advance press and the Gilmore honor, even with moments of thrilling pianism, the evening proved a surprising disappointment.

There is little doubt that Blechacz possesses a remarkable, even staggering technique. He blazed through the most demanding, finger-busting passages without dropping a single note, all thrown off with even articulation and massive sonority. The young pianist also presented the serious dignified deportment of an Old World artist—when was the last time you saw a pianist wear a long-tailed tuxedo for a recital?

Yet while raw power was there in abundance Friday, nearly everything else that makes a great artist was largely missing in action.

The evening led off with Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor. Blechacz brought bracing clarity to the contrapuntal lines with boldly projected playing. Yet ultimately, as with most of the program’s selections, the playing felt too unvaryingly loud. There was a slight dip in volume for the repeats yet little charm or delicacy in his aggressive approach to Bach, which sounded strangely mechanical and old-fashioned.

Blecahacz’s weighty style proved better suited to Beethoven, as shown in his dramatic rendering of the “Pathetique” sonata, which was the clear highlight of the evening. To make this familiar music emerge fresh is no small feat and Blechacz’s volatile approach delivered some of the jarring impact that this music must have had when new and played by the composer to baffled audiences in Vienna. The quiet, unsettled notes of the opening movement were emphatically contrasted with violently explosive chords. Blechacz took a flowing, unsentimental approach in the Adagio, albeit with an overloud right hand, and brought extraordinary fire and fury to the Rondo finale at a lightning tempo.

So with the fizzing Beethoven, one thought maybe the insensitive Bach was a fluke and Blechcacz would truly come into his own after intermission with music devoted to his compatriot Chopin.

That didn’t happen. With one exception, his Chopin proved the greatest letdown of the evening—steely of tone, hovering at an unvaried fortissimo and lacking in essential nuance, delicacy and poetry.

While the decrescendo to the coda was artfully rendered, most of the Nocturne in A-flat major felt rushed, impatient and loud. That’s fine for the ensuing “Military” Polonaise, where a bold approach fits. Yet in the Polonaise in C minor the playing crossed over from muscle to banging at times and the dynamic never went below mezzoforte in the opening, missing the crucial sense of mystery. The Three Mazurkas of Op. 63 were likewise loud, aggressive and charmless.

Only the dramatic Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp seemed like sympathetic terrain, the contrast between chords and rippling notes firmly painted. The coda offered a spell-binding display of power and velocity by any measure. Blechacz’s single encore was a stately account of Chopin’s somber Prelude in C minor.

Were the Gilmore judges so wowed by Blechacz’s astounding technique that they forgot about other essential artistic qualities? Or was the pianist just having an off night? Time will tell.

Posted in Performances

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