Rafał Blechacz is known within the piano world as the winner of the 2005 Chopin International Piano Competition (he was the first Polish pianist to win since Krystian Zimerman), but on the whole, he has kept a fairly low media profile since. Judging from his appearance at the Wigmore Hall early this new year, he seems a quiet and modest musician, and there is nothing attention-seeking about his performance, which was quite refreshing in this age of young pianists with strong “personalities”.

Rafał Blechacz © Felix Broede
Rafał Blechacz
© Felix Broede

Blechacz brought a classic programme of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, which seemed to reveal a slightly conservative side to his taste. He opened the recital with a crystalline and elegant performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D major, K311. It was on the whole a straightforward interpretation – he brought out transparent and well-balanced sonority and let the music flow naturally without making any strong articulations or harmonic/rhythmic emphases, although he had a slight tendency to rush the end of fast passages in the outer movements. In the second movement, which he took at a slowish tempo, he managed to create an intimate atmosphere, drawing the audience into Mozart’s delicate expressions. I almost felt that the grand piano was too blunt an instrument for this music, and his sensitive playing may suit a fortepiano better (by coincidence, there was a fortepiano at the back of the stage – probably for András Schiff’s recital the following evening).

After this elegant preamble, Blechacz plunged into the more turbulent sound world of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. Yet here too, his approach was classical and elegant, bringing out the youthful side of Beethoven (the composer was 27 when he composed the sonata). Blechacz opened the slow introduction with an emphatic C minor chord, but the main section was taken at a swift tempo and his approach was generally straightforward and there were no idiosyncratic interpretations in phrasing or tempo. He certainly captured the youthful energy of Beethoven, but at times it felt too poised and lacking in inner drama. Perhaps he could have emphasized a bit more of the motivic elements in the development section. However, the return of the introduction in the coda was poignantly handled.

The warm and lyrical middle movement in A flat major was simply and touchingly played. Blechacz by nature doesn’t wear emotions on his sleeve and he may seem rather reserved, but nevertheless his playing is highly sensitive and musical. The final movement sounded a little rushed at times, but technically brilliant and culminated in a dramatic climax.

The second half of the recital was dedicated to Chopin’s dances. It was an entertaining mix of the familiar (3 Waltzes Op.64 including the “Minute” Waltz) and the less familiar (Op.56 Mazurkas), concluding with the substantial F minor Polonaise. He was obviously totally at home in this repertoire and he was at his most introspective in the Mazurkas. He tastefully staggered the right hand and left hand in the first piece (which is how Chopin is said to have played), and in the second piece he articulated the folksy dance rhythms. The three waltzes were also finely played, although they were so familiar that they felt a bit too cosy. He was most powerful and extrovert in the Polonaise where he brought out the intensity of the work with strongly articulated rhythms especially in the left hand, but it felt a bit earthbound and lacked the sense of fantasy.

He offered a single encore: Brahms’s reflective Intermezzo in A major Op.118 no. 2 which was beautifully nuanced and poignantly played. Obviously Blechacz is a sensitive pianist and his playing is understated and natural which are qualities that should be cherished. At the same time, I felt he seemed almost reluctant to push outside his comfort zone and wished for a sense of adventure both in his programming and musical expression.