Rafał Blechacz

Rafał Blechacz’s profound affinity for Bach’s music flows through his first-ever album of the composer’s keyboard works for Deutsche Grammophon

Praised by the Washington Post as “a musician in service to [Bach’s] music, searching its depths, exploring its meaning and probing its possibilities”, the now 31-year-old Rafał Blechacz, winner of the 2005 International Chopin Piano Competition, has been immersed in Bach since childhood and has cultivated a strikingly natural eloquence in his mature interpretations of the composer’s keyboard works.

Blechacz’s first Bach album, set for release on Deutsche Grammophon on 10 February, opens with one of the pianist’s signature pieces, the Italian Concerto BWV 971, and includes the Partitas No.1 in B flat major BWV 825 and No.3 in A minor BWV 827. The programme also comprises the four Duets BWV 802-805, enigmatic pieces from Part Three of the Clavier-Übung, the Fantasie and Fugue in A minor BWV 944, and the chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring as transcribed for piano by Dame Myra Hess.

Rafał Blechacz approaches each of these works with an awareness of the history of Bachian performance. Knowing about period instruments and performance practice, he agrees, can help reveal how the composer might have intended his music to be played. Yet he is also convinced that, when it comes to bringing Bach’s music to life, head must never rule heart. “Of course, it’s very important to be well informed about Baroque style,” he observes. “But sometimes with Bach I feel it’s even more important to listen to your heart and your intuition.”

His own intuition flows not least from his formative experience as an organist. Young Rafał cut his musical teeth on Bach’s principal instrument, playing organ for several years before turning full time to piano. In addition to playing for services at the main church in his hometown of Nakło nad Notecią, he also gave occasional recitals there long after becoming a pianist. “I was fascinated by the organ, and many of my earliest musical memories are of listening to the organ in church,” he recalls. “I wanted to be an organist but then tried piano and realised it was probably the right instrument for me.” It felt natural, he adds, to continue exploring Bach’s keyboard works following his conversion. “Even when it became clear that piano was my instrument, I was determined to play Bach.”

Soon after his Chopin Competition triumph, Blechacz received permission to play the recently installed organ at Warsaw’s Philharmonic Hall. He spent three hours at its console, playing Bach and improvising pieces inspired by the composer’s keyboard music. “There was no one else there and I had the luxury to play at will,” he recalls. “It was just four days after the Chopin Competition, so for me it was a special prize.”

He notes how keyboard skills developed at the organ, especially those related to the production of a singing line, have enriched his technical resources as a pianist. “Bach on the organ sometimes teaches me the most appropriate legato. In playing Bach on piano I use the organ legato, which involves a variety of different fingering techniques, to keep the clarity of sound and its naturalness. That’s why it was so important for me to find a grand piano with a very bright tone for this recording. Of course, the modern concert piano sounds completely different from the instruments of three hundred years ago, but the player should still develop a very specific intonation for this type of music.”

Blechacz’s recollection of organ-playing techniques and of the instrument’s musical characteristics influenced his reading of Bach’s little-known Fantasia and Fugue in A minor BWV 944, guiding him to set aside crescendos and decrescendos in favour of sudden dynamic contrasts. “And this idea also influences the tempo, since you simply can’t play as quickly on an organ,” he adds. “You can learn a lot from the organ, not only in Bach but also in the many polyphonic passages in Chopin.”

The close relationship between sound, physical gesture and emotion in music matters to Rafał Blechacz. As a doctoral student at Nicolaus Copernicus University in the northern Polish city of Toruń, he has spent countless hours contemplating Bach’s aesthetic. The depth of his reflections can be felt throughout this album, clearly so in his approach to the composer’s musical rhetoric and language of expression. Bach’s slow movements, he notes, offer a key to understanding the composer’s spiritual and philosophical outlook. “You mustn’t play them in an overly Romantic manner, not that this means that the music doesn’t express emotions – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that it’s not the subjectively coloured world of emotion that you find in Chopin in particular and more generally in the Romantics. Bach presents a religious or, rather, a contemplative and metaphysical world.”