In Chopin’s Shadow: Portland Piano International brings Polish sensation Rafał Blechacz

Rafał Blechacz performs at Portland State University Sunday and Monday. Photo: Felix Broede/ Deutsche Grammophon

Rafał Blechacz performs at Portland State University Sunday and Monday. Photo: Felix Broede/ Deutsche Grammophon


The prestigious Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland is held only every five years. The 1990 and 1995 competitions failed to produce a Grand Prix Winner, but in 2005, one 20-year-old entrant so outranked his fellow competitors that the judges found no one suitable for second prize. Born just 150 miles northwest of Chopin’s birthplace, Rafał Blechacz seems the reincarnation of Chopin for his homeland.

This Sunday and Monday, September 29 and 30th, Portland Piano International’s new artistic director Arnaldo Cohen will welcome Blechacz as the opening pianist of PPI’s 2013-2014 season.

“Polonaises and mazurkas are, of course, very special for the Polish people and Polish artists,” the characteristically modest Blechacz told OregonArtsWatch. “But in my opinion, any artist can enter into the logic of Chopin, and by understanding Chopin’s sensibilities can create the right emotion and the right feelings.”

Clearly Blechacz isn’t “any” artist. While performing all over the world, Blechacz is also finishing up his own book which discusses examining the inner workings of a musical score in order to discover one’s unique interpretation.

PPI has put Portland in the enviable position of hearing Blechacz perform two solo recitals. “It is not so often that I play two concerts back to back in the same city and concert hall,” said Blechacz. “The experience will be very enjoyable for the audience and me, because in the same hall, on the same piano, I can create completely different musical worlds. For example, in the first concert I play music by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. Then for the second concert I play music by Debussy and Szymanowski, along with the same Chopin selections. The first concert is more classical, obviously. In the second concert, the idea is to show the contrast between Debussy and Szymanowski, between the impressionist and the expressionist, between the colors and shades of their sounds.”

The two-recital format reinstated by new artistic director Cohen this season provides greater opportunity for pianists to present works that lie outside standard piano repertoire. “I am most pleased that Blechacz will be performing Szymanowski’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 8,” Cohen says. “We are lucky to hear this piece, which is rarely performed, by an artist who understands so well the language of the composer and at the same time is a master of his instrument.” In PPI’s 36-year history, works by Szymanowski have been performed at only three other concerts, and Monday evening’s audience will hear PPI’s first presentation of this sonata.

While many pianists are unfamiliar with Szymanowski, Blechacz connected with the composer’s music at an early age. “I was a child,” he stated, “and, fascinated by the unexpected harmonic solutions and wonderful melodies, I really wanted to play more and more of Szymanowski’s music. Today when I present Szymanowski’s massive culminations of sound I want to have a great bass in the piano and a great forte in the higher section of the piano.”

Born just 33 years after Chopin’s death to Polish nobility in Ukraine, Szymanowski was keenly aware of his role as a Polish composer. Szymanowski’s first piano sonata was written when he was still quite young and wrestling with the shadow of Chopin. “Above all he loved and worshipped Chopin and, after Chopin’s music, the piano works of Scriabin,”  Ludomir Różycki, a fellow member of the composers’ group Young Poland, said of Szymanowski. “When he was working on his First Piano Sonata, I found him frequently at the instrument stuyding in minute detail the strucutre of the passages in Chopin and Scriabin.”

Szymanowski’s close examination of Chopin’s music led him to conclude that “the works of Fryderyk Chopin possess precisely this trait of immutable Polishness –a Polishness existing beyond this or that historical event, concentrating in itself…the Myth of the Polish Soul from the most profound depths of the heart.”

These Polish traits resonate with Blechacz. “When I am practicing Szymanowski, especially in his mazurkas, I see similar emotional solutions in his music as in Chopin’s music,” he explains.

The Myth of the Polish Soul, at once mysterious and captivating, speaks to the very human search for a unique identity made complete through collective realization. Chopin’s and Szymanowski’s decisive rhythms, troubled harmonies, nostalgic ornaments, and biting emotional contrasts not only create space for this metaphysical search but also, when performed in a concert hall full of responsive listeners, provide for a collective experience of this mystery. Hearing Blechacz realize these two composers’ solutions within Portland’s own Lincoln Hall is a rare opportunity to experience such a reality.

Blechacz’s concert on September 29 is sold out. The concert on September 30, which features Szymanowski’s first piano sonata, is at 7:30pm at Lincoln Hall. Buy tickets at Portland Piano International or call 503.228.1388.

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

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2 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    We’re really sorry to miss him – I’m recording in Newport and Agnieszka’s in Chicago with ALD, performing (ironically enough), in 2 of the companies 3 performances there, her just-completed Chopin Project (all 24 Preludes), rehearsed to Rafał Blechacz’s recording and whose tempi she’s requested of Igor Lipinski, upcoming Midwest-based Polish pianist, with whom ALD is performing – who knows, maybe they’ll team up on the Chopin Project somewhere down the road – anyone attending this is in for a treat.

  2. I can’t believe this concert was not reviewed – or maybe it was and I miss it?

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