Hauschka and Blechacz: Piano tradition and innovation in Portland


Hauschka performed at Portland's Mississippi Studios.

Hauschka performed at Portland’s Mississippi Studios.


“I was thinking about abandoned cities,” pianist-composer Hauschka told the audience before beginning his performance at at his intimate Mississippi Studios concert last Friday, “There are two and a half thousand cities that are abandoned in the world; if you look at Wikipedia they are ordered by country, and there are some amazing photos. I imagined myself sitting in one of those houses for a week listening to music.”

Finding beauty in what others have neglected or discarded seems a strong inclination for the German pianist and composer (real name: Volker Bertelmann), who has performed often in Portland.. Hauschka builds intricate sound structures out of the janglings of everyday life. Placing found objects like bottle caps, ping pong balls, duct tape, clips, toy drums and cymbals onto specific strings of the piano, he creates a rhythmic orchestra alive with delightful buzzes, rattles, plinks, and chimes.
Hauschka’s pieces generally begin with a simple rhythmic motif upon which he layers repetitive melodies and harmonies. He improvised three pieces for the hundred or so privileged souls in attendance at Portland’s Mississippi Studios. The minimalist approach to harmony and melody gives the audience freedom to focus on the various rhythmic textures that float or streak across the brooding musical landscape like many beams of light.
The first piece began with an insistent knocking that by the end transformed into a lilting dance rhythm. Hauschka electronically manipulated the last knocking rhythm so that it drifted out into the distance for the listener to rediscover later. The second featured more angular rhythms periodically interrupted by nostalgic, chiming dances. A cymbal placed upon the lower strings splashed buzzing bass chords defiantly into the air while the dampened tenor strings became hand drums pattering on top. A chiming waltz-like section interrupted to usher in electronically manipulated sound characters that shimmered around a march of minor sixths and thirds. The musical landscape swelled to a seat-shaking intensity before dissolving into another nostalgic waltz which thrust the piece back into the angular rhythms of the beginning.
The final work illustrated well Hauschka’s artistic searching. “I tried to find some expression for the endlessness of beauty,” he explained to the audience, “and for me, that means monochrome colors, steady waves of sound, and a little darkness. I would call such expression Melancholie.” As the piece progressed, Hauschka choreographed the removal of all of his found objects, placing them in a heap or whimsically sticking them to the exterior of the piano as he continued to play harp-like chords. While this signaled the conclusion of the piece, the rhythmic sounds produced in the process of removing the objects served to continue the music’s development, illustrating Hauschka’s search for the endlessness of beauty. The audience chuckled appreciatively, realizing that Haushka was still enlarging our ears’ territorial definitions of music. With the piano returned to its naked state, Hauschka ended the night with a melancholy dance.
Honest Interpretations

Hauschka last appeared in Oregon when Portland Piano International hosted him at Doug Fir Lounge. This year, the Polish Chopin sensation Rafał Blechacz opened PPI’s 2013-2014 season with two different concerts, one on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. “His sound reflects the honesty of his strong convictions,” said PPI’s artistic director Arnaldo Cohen. The honest exposure of one’s artistic backbone takes a great deal of courage, and the greatest musicians are those committed to such honesty with the knowledge that their convictions will evolve as the world responds to their art.

Blechacz is one of those artists committed to finding an interpretation that is honest to himself and to the composer: “For me, the key to developing individual interpretation on a particular piece is finding the right balance between the emotional and intellectual aspects of the music,” he told ArtsWatch. The greatest example is Arthur Rubinstein; when I’m listening to him play I can say that his interpretations are absolutely individual, but at the same time his respect for Chopin’s style is absolutely audible.”
How to find one’s individual interpretation while remaining true to the composer’s intentions is an oft-explored question that causes much fighting and biting among music lovers. Because Blechacz speaks frequently about entering into the logic of a piece, one might expect a clean, cerebral performer. Thankfully, Blechacz’s playing clearly derives from heartfelt convictions, and when balanced by thoughtful analysis, the listener forgets about the piano, about Blechacz, and is overwhelmed by Music.

Chopin’s music, like breathing, is natural for Blechacz; this connection stems from birth, but Blechacz credit his international success to rigorous study. “I concentrated on the logic of the mazurka and the polonaises, and thanks to studying the score and philosophers like Roman  Ingarden, I could understand quite well the typical character of the Polish dance,” Blechacz recalled. “I wanted to create a very Polish interpretation with my own individual viewpoint of the polonaises.”

Rafal Blechacz. Photo: Felix Broede.

Rafal Blechacz. Photo: Felix Broede.

A problem arises, however, when Blechacz is not convinced that he has found the right balance. Blechacz’s body language in Mozart’s piano sonata k.311 communicated a sense of anxiety that was reflected in the music: stodgy phrasing in the second movement was bookended by melodic lurches and forced harmonic hesitations in the outer movements. Blechacz did effectively capture the sonata’s operatic character in some special moments, and the audience audibly laughed at his use of staccato and melodramatic pauses to humorously depict the third movement’s cadenza.

Blechacz’s perfect balance was best displayed in the Chopin repertoire he performed Sunday evening. The rolled start of the Nocturne op. 32 no. 2 was exquisite. While still right-hand dominated, melodies finally spun out effortlessly. The audience realized that Blechacz’s musical convictions held more integrity in this second half of the concert and didn’t dare clap after the Nocturne, allowing the rolled chord, identical to the piece’s beginning, to completely expand and dwell in Lincoln Hall; this A-flat major chord then amped up a half step to the victorious Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, no.1. Blechacz’s fifth finger, normally curved straight up, was finally relaxed and, sitting only six rows away, I could see him using the full range of all ten fingertips; some of his fingers would be up on their tips, firmly connecting with the keys to express aggression; others were flattened, using the soft pad of the fingertip to express a darker sadness. His variety of finger approaches in the Chopin pieces meant that his colors changed immediately and dramatically. Tears are rare for this listener, but Blechacz’s performance of Chopin’s Polonaise opus 40, no. 2 precipitated them.
The second night’s performance opened with Debussy, and Blechacz kept his hands much closer to the keys, seeming much more at ease then the previous night. Blechacz found unique polyphonic lines in the Menuet and separated the lines with a gentle balance of tone color. Before placing the last notes, Blechacz pulled his arms completely away from the piano and re-approached the final tonic notes like a pole vaulter. Blechacz used this long-distance approach to produce a surprisingly precise dynamic shading. Of course, the overplayed “Claire de Lune” is the quintessential cringe-piece, but Blechacz’s refreshing approach included very careful, clean pedaling, avoided over-romanticizing the arpeggios, and used a laser-beamed melody to help paint a gorgeously pale, almost icy, moonlight. Only at the end did he indulge in bringing out a few, well chosen inner lines that brought the listener’s ear back to earth.

Blechacz then performed the piece I most anticipated, Szymanowski’s first piano sonata. His fingers flew, his body was intensely focused, and the audience gasped in awe at the fireworks. Szymanowski’s expressionism was clearly exhibited: bold, bright colors and overwhelming harmonies. For me, however, the anticipated rawness was missing. Blechacz, remarkably comfortable with the technical demands of the first movement, presented a wall of sound that, while impressive, fell shy of guiding the audience through the piece.

His recording, however, is absolutely phenomenal. In the second movement, sans the distractions of technical difficulties, Blechacz maintained integrity in his musical lines. It was a privilege to hear this piece live for the first time. Judging by the audience’s reactions to both Blechacz and Hauschka, Portland is ready for more repertoire outside the traditional realm.

Portland Piano International has developed an exciting season. The piano, thanks to Marshall Anderson’s piano tuning expertise, is a highly satisfying instrument and was perfect for Blechacz’s artistic needs. In addition, moving the concerts to Lincoln Hall produced a more comfortable and personal experience, but because of the smaller seating capacity, all but three concerts are sold out for the remainder of the season. Including a coupon in the program for these concerts was certainly a nice touch.

PPI has tapped into an amazingly generous audience that clearly enjoys funding the enjoyment of great piano music. To foster the development of Portland’s own piano performers and teachers, perhaps donors should consider funding special concert packages for college and young piano students. This season, Portland Piano International is hosting two master classes free and open to the public given by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on November 23 and Vladimir Feltsman on January 13.

Bavouzet is the next pianist to visit Portland Piano International. Check back with Oregon ArtsWatch for interviews and analysis of PPI’s 2013-2014 season.

Jana Hanchett is a pianist, teacher, and writer living in Portland.

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