Polish pianist gained impetus at international competition

Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz has been called one of the greatest talents of his generation. But as
Rafal Blechacz will perform at the Union College Memorial Chapel on Wednesday.
Rafal Blechacz will perform at the Union College Memorial Chapel on Wednesday.

Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz has been called one of the greatest talents of his generation. But as far as he’s concerned, it was competitive smarts that brought him the biggest win of his career at the competition that changed his life.

“I had a strategy,” he said a couple of weeks ago from Poland. “I never listened to the other pianists. I didn’t know their level. I didn’t read any newspapers. I just focused on my own repertoire.”

He will debut at Union College’s 41st International Festival of Chamber Music on Wednesday in a program of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Szymanowski.

Blechacz was competing in the 15th Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition in 2005 in Warsaw. At the time, he was a sophomore at the Feliks Nowewiejski Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz and already had some competition experience. Nine years before, he had won the All-Poland Johann Sebastian Bach Competition, and in 2002, he won second prize at the Artur Rubinstein in Memoriam event and had tied with Alexandr Kobrin for second prize (no first prize was awarded) in the 5th International Piano Competition in Hamamatsu, Japan.

Plan for performance

It was at the Japanese competition, which had a huge number of contestants, that he began to look ahead to the Chopin competition and plan how he’d deal with the pressure and performance demands, he said. His plan worked.

Not only did he win the Grand Prize, he also won the Polish Radio Prize for best mazurka, the Frédéric Chopin Society Prize for the best performance of a polonaise, the National Philharmonic of Poland Prize for the best concerto performance and the Krystian Zimerman-sponsored prize for the best performance of a sonata. Blechacz also won the Competition Audience Award. He so completely dominated the competition (there were 257 entrants) that the 21-member jury did not award a second prize.

One of the music critics, Jan Popis, said the scale of Blechacz’s talent and his ability to “play Chopin like Chopin . . . with his noble beauty in the purest form” dwarfed the offerings of the other competitors. It was only the fifth time in the competition’s long history — it was inaugurated in 1927 but has gone through a few renamings — that a Polish pianist had won, and only the second time since Krystian Zimerman in 1975 that a pianist has won all the categories.

“It was a big moment in my career,” Blechacz said. “I knew it was important.”

His life changed immediately.

“Everything was completely new — the press, the agents — which to choose for me, who would be the best,” he said.

The most satisfying was the message he received from Zimerman, whom people might remember from his 2004 Union College recital at which he played on his own piano.

“He sent me a beautiful letter and he invited me to come to Basle, Switzerland, where he lives,” Blechacz said. “I went in February 2007 and I spent a week. We played together and shopped.”

No rush for career

Although many doors have opened to him since the competition, Blechacz has chosen to not rush into an international career.

“I do many recitals and some concertos with orchestra — about 45 concerts a year,” he said. “But I don’t want to play too much. I must develop more repertoire and study other subjects. I need the right balance for my life.”

He’s been taking courses in the philosophy of music and reading many books on how to be an artist and on music interpretation. He’s also added some chamber music with a violinist and is already working on the music for his fifth disc for a 2013 release, which will be all of Chopin’s polonaises.

In 2006, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon — only the second Polish artist since Zimerman to do so — and recorded the complete Chopin Preludes (2007) live.

“There’s a special atmosphere live that you can’t reach in the studio,” he said.

That disc achieved platinum status in Poland by the second week of its release and received the German Echo Klassik and French Diapason D’or awards. His second disc of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven sonatas was also hugely successful in 2008 and was followed in 2009 with his recording of Chopin’s two concerti with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which received Best of the Year from Gramophone magazine and other awards and quickly became platinum in Poland. This year, his Debussy and Szymanowski disc also received great critical acclaim along with several awards.

Still, there are many pianists out there who play Chopin. What makes his interpretation so much different or better?

Plays his own style

“I have listened to other recordings of pianists playing Chopin. But for me it is important to be natural, to hear my intuition and my heart,” Blechacz said. “I want to go deeply into the music’s logic, to have my own style. This is not an interpretation of an interpretation.”

Journalists have asked him about Chopin’s specific use of rubato, which is a kind of pushing and pulling at phrases.

“I tell them sometimes I play a phrase this way and another one that way. It depends on the instrument, the acoustic of the hall, the intonation of the piano, my feelings,” he said. “One needs to have a plan, but it must be natural.”

Next season, he’ll be playing more recitals and even more orchestral solos in Europe especially between January and June. That will be easy, he said.

“Ever since I had trouble on a plane with my luggage, I travel by car in Europe. It’s very convenient and faster than plane. Besides, I don’t like the crowds,” he said with a laugh. “But if I have to go to Japan or the United States, well, I do like to travel and if I have time I see the sights.”

This will not be his first time in the United States — he’s already debuted with the New York Philharmonic (2008) and expects to perform next season with the Detroit, Baltimore, Alabama and Chicago orchestras. His October U.S. schedule includes only one other recital, a return visit to Duke University in Durham, N.C.

“These are all important and very nice experiences,” Blechacz said. “I’ve always dreamed to play for audiences all over the world and now, after 2005, I can. I hope I can still do it 20 or 30 years from now.”

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