The Triumph of Sensibility
Some of us can still recall a wet and windy autumn evening in Hamburg in 1984 when the world suddenly stood still – at least in the city’s Musikhalle, as it was called at that time. No one dared to breathe, so utterly remote from the world did we feel. Instead, the whole audience stared in astonishment at the performance onstage. For what we could hear was not just music, it was music by Debussy – Book Two of Les Préludes – and the man who was playing it was playing it so divinely that listeners inevitably felt they had been transported to the Arcadian Fields.
It was a miracle of a kind that rarely happens, and yet it was no miracle at all. For the pianist who held the world in the palm of his hand for this one brief moment in time was godlike in stature: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, a master magician. His appearances on the platform were always akin to an epiphany, especially when he was playing Chopin or Debussy. Then it was more than music. It was a spell cast over the listener’s soul.
It is entirely understandable, therefore, that Rafał Blechacz’s eyes light up when he speaks about this great artist, one of his favourite pianists, along with, among others, Alfred Cortot and Walter Gieseking. Michelangeli’s interpretations of Debussy offer the Polish artist an inspiration. This is clear not only from the translucent and almost transcendental way in which Blechacz interprets Estampes but also from the pianistic brilliance he brings to Pour le piano and from the iridescent colours of L’Isle joyeuse. Few pianists have ever been able to interpret Debussy’s musical language with such lucidity and at the same time in such virtuosic ways.
The young Polish pianist is not really interested in the ongoing musicological debate as to whether Debussy’s works are Impressionistic or not. For Rafał Blechacz, Debussy is unquestionably an Impressionist, but an Impressionist who has borrowed his structural virtues from Classicism and developed them a stage further. In short, Debussy was a composer who was fully aware of all that Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin had achieved but was able to translate all of this into the language of musical modernism. That is why Rafał Blechacz is able to describe Debussy as the king of colours.
If we stick to this image, it may not be presumptuous of us to describe Karol Szymanowski as the king of existential poetry. With the single exception of his compatriot Chopin, Szymanowski was unique in his ability to speak straight to the heart with his music. That was what he wanted. And there is no doubt that listeners are right to describe him as an Expressionist. Szymanowski’s musical language is filled with emotion, intuition and inspiration and with wit, voluptuousness and yearning. These were the qualities that struck Rafał Blechacz when, still little more than a child, he first heard Szymanowski’s music while at a recital by Jerzy Godziszewki, a teacher at the Bydgoszcz Academy where Blechacz was later to study. Godziszewski played several pieces by Szymanowski, among them Metopes and Masks, emotionally charged works full of sensual sonorities and remotely reminiscent of the mysticism of a composer like Scriabin but entirely distinctive in tone. The young Rafał Blechacz was fired up by a very real desire to enter this world, which he did by the circuitous route of the Variations op. 3.
Blechacz feels a tremendous affinity for Szymanowski, especially for a colossal work like the early C minor Sonata, which could be described as a continuation of Beethoven’s ideal of a free sonata form culminating in a fugue but using Expressionist means. The resultant work is a powerhouse of feelings not least because its monumental structure is combined with a range of sonorities extending from Classicism to Scriabin.
Rafał Blechacz performs this music with a nobility and authority that are almost disturbing when we recall how young he is. But at the same time the listener can sense the degree to which his extensive work on Bach and the Viennese Classical composers has influenced his sense of form and sonority. Apparently contradictory elements come together here: youthful impetuosity and the greatest poetical sensitivity. One might think there could be no greater contradiction, but this is only superficially the case, for, as physics teaches, opposites attract – especially when they are combined with such enormous reserves of energy.