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Rafa Blechacz is one of DGs best-selling young artists his stunning albums have sold more than 160,000 units worldwide. And Rafa Blechacz is by talent, proclivity, and nationality the perfect choice to record works by his fellow Pole, Szymanowski. And therefore to record Debussy, too whose presence in Szymanowskis musical DNA looms large. Arguably the greatest Polish composer since Chopin, Szymanowski was also influenced by Ravel, Scriabin, and Strauss. For the first time on record Rafa Blechacz plays Szymanowskis reverie-inducing music a revelation to those unfamiliar with it. Debussys Impressionist soundscapes (also new to Rafa Blechaczs discography) including Pour le piano and Estampes are a natural fit for a Chopin expert such as he
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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.
Blechacz (or his agent, whoever has a bigger say in repertoire) is very clever: instead of immediately attacking high-brow, huge-fanbase pieces, he sits back every now and then and plays what _he_ enjoys and makes the best of it. If he had taken on, for example, something as popular as Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto right out the gate, no doubt he would receive a storm of negative reviews from people who have at all times have in mind a half-dozen "old masters" who supposedly play better than the young up-and-coming Blechacz. By choosing the marginally less popular Debussy (maybe excepting "L'isle Joyeuse") and the almost unheard-of Szymanowski, Blechacz forces reviewers to actually concentrate on _his_ pianism and artistry, rather than reducing themselves to comparisons with the "old masters." This is no doubt part of a grand plan to build up a loyal fanbase (rumor has it that he has a girlfriend for every big city in Japan. Heh) that will stick with him through thick and thin. Or maybe it's just artistic honesty. I'm just carrying on.
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I am happy to report that this album speaks for itself and needs no comparison with whatever niche examples you could dig up. The Debussy goes from spirited to mellow to fiery (and that's just "Pour le Piano." "Estampes," too, is a vital display of Blechacz's sense of color and mental orchestration). As for Szymanowski, which I submit is harder to communicate to listeners, Blechacz does his best and succeeds fairly admirably, in my view. It's thick, it's dramatic, it's extroverted. It's got all the good stuff you want in a large-scale composition (and even a third movement that could pass for easy listening material), which Blechacz packages and launches to the stars.
As always, Blechacz walks the line between the intellectual and the emotional: the result is a balanced and an extraordinarily well thought-out performance full of scintillating technique and inspired articulation. (I found myself sitting closer and closer to the edge of my chair for the finale of the Szymanowski sonata.) There is no soppy lollygagging around with rubato or "artful slowness;" the playing is all very direct and to-the-point, and manages wonderfully to keep a lively pace without sounding clipped or rushed.
Blechacz's playing is pretty consistent, then. I would stop short of calling it formulaic, though, even if he has a tendency to play in a way that the listener can quickly and easily become intimately familiar with. I for one have listened to him enough that I sometimes internally hypothesize about how he would tackle a particular piece. And yet the value in Blechacz's artistry lies exactly in this range: he has yet to display any sort of idiosyncrasy that might spark controversy. Take for example the constant comparisons to Benedetti Michelangeli: in Debussy they may be compared, but in Chopin I sometimes find myself confused by what Michelangeli is doing. Blechacz remains solid as a rock: his finger control is delightful to envision, and the way he coaxes a bel canto tone out of his piano really says volumes about his musicality.
Overall this album could take some time to get used to - but if you have even a passing liking for Blechacz, there's no way the choice of lesser-known repertoire in this album could turn you away from him. His playing continues to charm and enchant.
Fair warning: as with the album of the three classical sonatas (preceding this one by some years), and more so than ever, this is NOT music for bedtime. This is NOT entry-level classical music; this is probably the most difficult-to-convey music that Blechacz has recorded so far. Even seasoned listeners (and I do not claim to be one. I say this as a layman) may find this album a little jarring.