Here's a major release by a young Polish pianist who swept the 2005 International Chopin Competition by taking five gold medals in a show of dominance so complete that no second prize was awarded - and yet no notice is being taken at Amazon. This may be a testimony to how reticent Rafal Blechacz has been to capitalize on his big win. This is only his fourth album for DG in seven years, and I know of no big U.S. engagements, as the pianist, now 26, continued to work toward a Ph.D. in cultural studies. But the other reason for overlooking his new CD, recorded as far back as January 2011, it that it contains half an hour of mostly middle Debussy and half an hour of mostly early Szymanowski. This isn't music to get general listeners to cheer.
But however long it takes and by however crooked a path, Blechacz surely will rise to the top of the heap among international virtuosos. Like his fellow Pole Piotr Anderszewski, he is the product of deep traditionalism matched with superb technique and a poetic sensibility. All the hallmarks are there for capturing the public's lasting attention, as was evident in his smashing debut album of the Chopin Preludes. DG will clearly stand by Blechacz, and it is the premiere label for pianists, as well as the home of Chopin Competition winners like Pollini, Argerich, and Zimerman (who was the last Pole to win the gold medal, in 1975).
As for the program, Blechacz plays the three Debussy selections - Pour le piano (1901), Estampes (1903), and L'Isle joyeuse (1904) - more directly than with impressionistic delicacy, a style that suits them. Debussy wouldn't reach the summation of his revolutionary writing for the piano until the two books of Preludes that began in 1910. There is an evocation of Javanese gamelan music in the open-sounding pentatones of Pagodas, which begins the ports-of-call tour in Estampes, and you always know that you are hearing Debussy, but I find this phase of his piano writing straightforward, melodic, and decorative.
To native Poles, Karol Szymanowski is their own Debussy, if not more, and the first work Blechacz plays, Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor, seamlessly carries over from the Debussy selections in mood and tone. both it and the Sonata in cminor Op. 8 are obscure enough that few recordings exist and no mention in the Wikipedia entry for the composer. At 23 min., the sonata is offered as a major work. It isn't Debussian as much as a mash-up of Chopin and Schumann in which Szymanowski's later trademarks of gauzy textures, formless form, and wandering harmonies hasn't been solidified. Polish ianists are passionate about Szymanowski - they speak his idiom from a very early age, although the general public outside Poland doesn't - and Blechacz gives the sonata a performance that makes it sound like a masterpiece, or if not that, a compelling Romantic expression.
I have no doubts bout Blechacz's immense gifts, but since his debut album I've been waiting for him to break out with major repertoire that will galvanize his reputation. It hasn't happened yet, but there's every reason to keep hoping.