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CHAMBER REVIEW
Oakmont Concert Series / Thursday, May 8, 2008
RAFAL BLECHACZ, CONCERT PIANIST

Rafael Blechacz

CHOPIN WINNER WOWS THEM IN OAKMONT

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, May 8, 2008

The young Polish pianist Rafael Blechacz arrived May 8 at the Oakmont Concerts Series with quite a bit of musical baggage, including winning the 2005 Chopin Competition (the same competition that launched Garrick Ohlsson's career in 1974) and playing on several ubiquitous You Tube snippets. He was touring the Bay Area, and his debut here was eagerly anticipated by a large crowd, including many pianists, in Berger Auditorium.

Blechacz didn't disappoint with his initial offering, Mozart's D-Major Sonata, K. 311. His command of fluid scale passages served the work well, as did his ability to put a little 'air' between the notes, establishing clarity as well as speed. He chose fast tempi and minimal pedal for both the opening allegro con spirito and the concluding rondeau. His hands were admirably balanced, and his dynamic control was exceptional. Clearly he has had excellent teachers. Unfortunately, several notes in the upper tenor and treble of the house piano went quickly out of tune, and continued so throughout the recital.

Debussy's Estampes followed, and was delivered effectively, if at times a little blandly. The three works in this collection are coloristic journeys into rich impressionism, and Blechacz presented them without showing any natural affinity for the Frenchman's often diaphanous and subtle music. Nonetheless, they were played with sonorous attention to detail, and received loud applause.

The first half ended with Szymanowski's early B-Flat Minor Variations, Op. 3, which received a passionate reading. Written just after 1900, this work has a noble theme and 12 disparate variations. Blechacz played them with ardor and masterly comprehension.

Chopin's 24 Preludes, Op. 28, comprised the second half of the concert. Blechacz's pianism here was of considerable authority but finally a little underwhelming. This trait seems odd for a competition winner, as the norm is for barnstorming, virtuosic playing to impress jurors and audiences alike. But Blechacz offered a more restrained approach to this intricate work, never getting a resounding fortissimo from the piano, often cutting off fermatas, never prolonging pedal points, and even underplaying the fleeting 16th and 22nd preludes. It's certainly a valid approach to this magnificent music, but a more heroic and large-scale interpretation seems preferable. Blechacz is young, however, and the Preludes should hold infinite possibilities for his future interest. Profound music demands a lifetime of artistic thought.

Responding to loud acclaim, he offered one encore, a scintillating Chopin waltz. Here in six minutes all the best of Mr. Blechacz's art was present: sovereign control, a chaste tone, perfectly etched scales and sculpted phrases of great beauty.