By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; C03
No cheap sports analogies are necessary to explain the magnitude of pianist Rafal Blechacz's win at the 15th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in 2005. He was barely 20 years old when he joined the pantheon of legendary previous winners, pianists such as Lev Oborin, Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini, and he not only took first place, he walked off with a passel of other honors: awards for best mazurka, best polonaise, best concerto and best sonata.
Victory propelled him into the arms of Deutsche Grammophon, the prestigious record label, and now Blechacz is touring the world. On Saturday afternoon, the Washington Performing Arts Society presented his local debut at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. It was an exhilarating two hours.
Blechacz still looks every inch the sincere student. He is tall and a bit gawky, with a mop of hair approaching Cousin Itt proportions. He wore his sacklike black suit a bit awkwardly and smiled almost sheepishly at the enthusiastic audience. Even his program -- a Bach partita, a Mozart sonata, some Debussy and three large essays by Chopin -- felt like a student recital, calculated to show his range and test his facility.
But it was immediately clear from the first sweet, liquid notes of the Bach Partita No. 1, BWV 825, that Blechacz is a student only in the deeper sense: a musician in service to the music, searching its depths, exploring its meaning and probing its possibilities. He plays with humility and absolute clarity and you might even call his approach dutiful, but that would leave the false impression that he is dry and academic.
The Sarabande, a dance that inspires an almost morbid introspection in the hands of other pianists, was a big, public display, assertive and bright. The left hand in the Praeludium, ghostly and dampened, sounded as if it were another instrument, so distinctly did it emerge from the upper line. He is happy to play mischievous little games with the tempos, slackening the pulse sooner than one expects in concluding phrases or, as in his delightful rendition of Mozart's Sonata K. 570, in altogether weird and fascinating places.
Blechacz is inclined to place musical lines in high relief, drawing clear dynamic and textural distinctions between voices. Even in the three movements of Debussy's "Pour le Piano" he played as if still under the spell of Bach, rather than inspired by some dubious analogy to impressionism. The Debussy was the weakest of his offerings, but even so, the brilliant clarity of the concluding Toccata was thrilling.
But no one came for Bach, Mozart or Debussy. They came for Blechacz's Chopin, and it was with three large-scaled, demanding Chopin scores after the intermission that the concert went from engaging to transporting.
There is a recurring trope in Chopin's music that one might call the "memory effect." Out of inwardness, darkness and anxiety a melody will emerge, simple, childlike, barely adorned, like a nursery rhyme remembered in the midst of a shipwreck. The power of these terrifying flashes of something sweet and uncorrupted embarrasses all too many pianists. Not Blechacz, who found primal innocence in the brief snatch of happiness around which Chopin builds the tempests of the Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20. It was pure magic.
There is a polonaise lurking somewhere in Chopin's huge and daunting Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61, but Chopin would rather it smolder than burst into flame. Few pianists can project this drama, the Chopin of scattered thoughts, chromatic anguish, the modernist Chopin that feels like a knot in your stomach. Still in his mid-20s, Blechacz has mastered the most difficult of Chopin's moods and gestures, he can make the music crystal clear in its emotional confusion. Not many performances of this deconstructed polonaise are likely to rise to the level of the one Blechacz gave Saturday afternoon.
He played only one encore, the Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4, loaded with tritones and so homeless in its harmonies that it tears at the emotions like a stray and crippled dog. It too flirts with the memory effect, and it was a thrill to hear this faithful student of music let the simple charisma of this Polish dance emerge for a moment, crisp and snappy, animating old bones with the muscle memory of youth. But the moment faded, back to the wandering, and as the music limped into silence, there was a hush in the Terrace Theater that happens so rarely it sends a chill down the spine.
Blechacz could have played three more encores. The crowd was willing, the applause sufficient, the enthusiasm general. One supposes it was his modesty, a humility that touches every note he plays, that explains his reticence.