This afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz gave his second recital in a Chamber Music San Francisco subscription series. In 2005 Blechacz was the first Pole in 30 years to win in the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and he won every award it was possible to win. Listening to him perform Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 23 G minor ballade (the first of four), one could get a sense of what had impressed the judges, whether it involved the microcosm of technique, the macrocosm of architectural understanding, or the rhetorical command of expressiveness, Blechacz knew how to make this ballad sing (which, after all, is what a ballad is supposed to do).
That was the good news. Less fortunate is that the rest of the program never rose to the level of this selection that began the second half. To some extent Blechacz’ other ballad selection, Opus 38 in F major (the second), came close, at least where technique was concerned; but his sense of overall structure and its relationship to expressiveness paled in comparison to his Opus 23 mastery. Even more disappointing were the other Chopin offerings in the second half of the program, the two Opus 26 polonaises and the four Opus 41 mazurkas; and their weakness could be attributed to a common reason. None of these selections captured the “danse sense” implied by the names Chopin had assigned to them.
Ultimately, this was a problem of rhythm; and it is best understood in terms established by Kim Kashkashian at the beginning of this month in the Chamber Music Master Class she gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Coaching a performance of the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s first string quartet, Opus 18, Number 1 in F major, she stressed the need for a clear sense of metrical pulse and the definition of rhythm in terms of how the beats of that pulse are “weighted.” This concept of the distribution of “weight” over a steady pulse constitutes the heart of every dance; and Blechacz performed both the polonaises and the mazurkas with little apparent attention to the significance of either the pulse or how it was weighted. The results were idiosyncratically erratic and, as a result, not particularly compelling.
A similar problem arose in his opening selection, the K. 264 set of variations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the ariette “Lison dormait” by Nicolas Dezède, composed in 1778. This puts it in the same time frame as the selections prepared by Bernard Labadie and David Greilsammer for performance with the San Francisco Symphony this past week; and these variations provide us with yet another view of “Mozart’s wilder side” (although they were composed while he was visiting Paris, rather than in Salzburg). This is particularly true of the eighth variation, an Adagio that twists and turns the distribution of rhythmic weight in every possible way (and then some that exceed the limits even of our own contemporary rhythmic sophistication).
Blechacz could never really get into these wild games that Mozart was playing. He made a valiant effort to get all of the notes in the right place at the right time. However, what was lost were all of the tensions Mozart summoned in playing triple meter against quadruple and even rhythms against dotted ones. Mozart was showing off to a fare-thee-well in this composition; and Blechacz never quite kept up with the volatility in his bag of tricks. The bottom line is that this is music that needs to be performed with wild abandon or not at all, and Blechacz could not muster that abandon.
The same could be said of his performance of Claude Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse,” which immediately followed the Mozart variations. While it replaces Mozart’s rhetoric of declaration with one of connotation, this composition is just as impetuous, approaching the brink of recklessness but never going over the edge. Here, again, the best that Blechacz could offer was a solid sense of discipline; but that was insufficient to summon the real spirit behind Debussy’s imaginative composition.
The highlight of the first half, however, was a performance of Karol Szymanowski’s first piano sonata, Opus 8 in C minor. Here I must plead unfamiliarity with the Szymanowski canon and cannot conjecture about whether or not he had a comparable wild side. Given that his influences include both Chopin and Debussy, as well as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Alexander Scriabin, I would be willing to place at least a small bet on that conjecture. However, Blechacz approached this score primarily as a source of opportunities for virtuosic display. The score did not disappoint the pianist, and the pianist did not disappoint in pulling out every available virtuosic stop. In the course of the entire program, this was the one other high point of his expressiveness.
Blechacz’ first encore continued his run of Chopin compositions in the second half of the program. He selected the unpublished C-sharp minor nocturne (BI 49), which was the same nocturne offered by Soyeon Lee in that Naumburg recital, whose coverage sparked so much controversy on this site. In this case, however, Blechacz seemed to be as comfortable with this nocturne as he had been with the ballades. This was also the case with his second encore, the Scherzo movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 2, Number 2 piano sonata (his second) in A major. This was the one work on the program with a clear sense of wit that Blechacz caught and conveyed, making it a highly suitable way to end his afternoon set of offerings.