SCHENECTADY — Polish pianist Rafal Blechaz returned to the Union College International Festival of Chamber Music series Sunday afternoon and confirmed that at only 29 he is one of this century’s master pianists.
That he was an exceptional musician had already been acknowledged — he’d won all the prizes at the 2005 Chopin International Piano Competition and is this year’s Gilmore Artist Award winner. Even with these honorsn and reading the rave review in The New York Times of his Carnegie Hall debut last week, the near-capacity crowd was easily won over by the extraordinary artistry Blechaz showed in a program of mostly familiar pieces by J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. He made everything sound new.
Bach’s “Italian Concerto in F Major” (1735) had a bracing, fresh vigor with spirited tempos, strong rhythmic pulses and excellent pacing. Blechaz’s very stylish, direct approach was supported by a clean, precise technique with subtle dynamic ranges and levels of nuance. The second slow movement’s lovely but melancholy melody was sung lovingly, and the finale was speedy and playful with Blechaz emphasizing the bass line with vigor.
Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”) (1798) had stark dynamic contrasts, great propulsive energy, dramatic yet often tender moments, and a sparkling musicality that showed depth and intelligence.
Blechaz was also charming to watch. He projected a kind of piquant whimsy with his elegant hand gestures, gentle head movements and the physicality he brought to nailing those big, loud chords (especially in the Chopin). Warmth and humor pervaded everything. At intermission the crowd surged the stage and bought up all his CDs.
Chopin’s music, however, brought out the imagination, the poet and the philosopher in Blechaz. Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2 (1846) had so much going on between the notes and Blechaz’s touch had so many colors that Chopin’s supple harmonic shifts were only part of the magic.
The three waltzes from Op. 64 (1846-47) were a marvel of sensitivity, clarity, lightness, unexpected rubatos and flying fingers.
The three mazurkas of Op. 56 (1843) were vigorous, robust yet tender, unforced and thoughtful. The “Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44” (1841) had dark storms with huge, loud octave runs that suddenly shift into a tender mazurka before returning. Bravura demands required a pianist with an equal capacity. Blechaz was sensational.
A cheering crowd, two bouquets and numerous curtain calls finally brought an encore: the elfin Scherzo from Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2, No. 2, which Blechaz played as a bright, elegant frolic.