Two years ago, I heard a friend play Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor as part of his high school graduation showcase.
It was more of an obligation than anything. Oh boy, I thought to myself, as the pimpled-faced school orchestra tuned up. The beginning of the first movement was a blur: the strings reminded me of Rick Steves giving an aerial tour of Poland, mostly plains with an occasional valley here and there. When the piano came in, the orchestra ceased to matter at all. The fluidity of the piano took over, meandering into scales that raced through the imagination. Geez, I thought, what an lopsided equation! I came to hear a concerto, not a piano sonata.
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For two years, I didn’t return to that piece until I heard the talented Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz, 24, had recorded Chopin’s only two piano concertos with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.
And Blechacz is something of a prodigy. At age 20, he took five first place prizes at the fifteenth International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in 2005. Born in a small town in northern Poland, Blechacz started playing the piano at five. In his short professional career, he quickly swept up a myriad of piano prizes and a record deal with Deutsche Grammophon, the largest classical music label in the world.
Blechacz, whose mop of brown hair reminds me somewhat of a 60’s rocker, is clearly the star of the new album “Chopin: Piano Concertos.” His interpretation of Chopin’s music is original and sincere.
Perhaps it is his age and nationality that sets him apart from the rest; Chopin, also a Pole, was even younger than Blechacz, barely having completed his formal musical education, when he wrote these two pieces. While Blechacz does not command the piano like the great Polish-born American pianist Arthur Rubinstein, he plays with great dexterity. Comparing Rubinstein’s aged performance and Blechacz recent recording would be unfair, of course, but I felt the latter’s rendition was much more personal. Even when the younger pianist is racing his fingers through the allegro of Concerto No. 2 in F minor, you could imagine him moving pleasantly to the rhythm. Indeed, he seems to feel the music, almost — as YouTube kindly shows us, Rubinstein played his Chopin sitting stiff as a mortar board while Blechacz sways in circles, enchanted, even, by the music.
“Chopin wrote these concerts when he was 18, 19. It was a very joyful time for him — he was in love.” Blechacz said in a promotional interview. “I think my role is to enter into Chopin’s feelings and recreate them afresh.”
The second movement of Concerto No. 2, a larghetto of ornate melodies, is one of the highlights of the album. It is a love letter in the truest sense, full of grace and gentleness. But it’s not all easy riding: at several points in the middle, the orchestra builds up dramatic tension, as if ready to engage with the piano. Just as the piece seems to be ready to burst, however, Blechacz’s flow of upper-range notes rushes forth, easily dissolving any hints of darkness. At these points, the orchestra accompaniment is reduced to a merely incidental role, allowing the pianist to take center stage.
“Chopin: Piano Concertos” is a lopsided equation — the composition actually sounds mediocre compared with other piano concertos of the same era — and no matter how well the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays, soloist Blechacz can do one better. Perhaps Chopin meant it that way when he composed those two pieces nearly two hundred years ago. After all, he was the pianist extraordinaire of his century.