Mozart’s Rondo in A minor is a single movement Andante in 6/8 for which many claims are made. Some scholars see it as a written out improvisation, and a compendium of every kind of Mozartian decoration and elaboration, with the A section ornamented with increasing extravagance upon each return. Later in the work the rising sequence of the main theme has every note trilled, which Rafał Blechacz executed like a craftsman creating a chain of pearls. Although its numerous chromatic passages have led it to be seen as a work of unusual pathos, Blechacz resisted any drooping melancholy or ‘porcelain’ Mozart playing, bringing out the robustness of the piece.

Rafał Blechacz © Felix Broede | DG
Rafał Blechacz
© Felix Broede | DG

There is very little Mozart in A minor, and the ensuing A minor sonata, K310, is the first of only two Mozart piano sonatas in any minor key. It followed almost without a break, effectively making a four movement A minor work for keyboard. The opening Allegro maestoso was more sturdy than subtle, but the Andante cantabile con espressione was indeed “singing and full of expression”, one of those movements were we can hear Mozart as a proto-Romantic. Both this and the final 2/4 Presto actually benefited from the pianist’s unapologetic use of the modern Steinway – no scaling down to fortepiano manners. (David Owen Norris’s programme note had much of interest to say on the differences, but Blechacz clearly had not read it!)

Still in A but now the major mode, Beethoven’s Op.101 sonata was nonetheless hardly a continuation – not even of Beethoven’s own middle period sonatas. Is that really the main theme of Beethoven sonata-drama at the outset? And why a march, recitative-like passages, and lots of fugal writing? Yes, it’s the first of Beethoven’s late works in the genre. We have travelled only from 1787 (K511) to 1816, but it’s a new musical world, and one where Rafał Blechacz did not always sound perfectly at home. His approach produced the wrong kind of unease in the first movement, with little of the questing approach favoured by many pianists. Although in fairness the first published score (though not the autograph) does say “Somewhat lively and with the warmest feeling”. And his directness was ideal for the fugue and for the ‘Lively, march-like’ Vivace alla marcia sometimes seen as anticipating Schumann with its dotted rhythms. And after the interval, some real Schumann.

The Piano Sonata no. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 was Clara’s favourite, and her objection to the difficulties of the finale led to that original Presto being replaced by the more familiar finale played here. The first movement has an initial marking of “As fast as possible”, but near the end Schumann adds "Faster" and then "Faster still", asking the pianist to emulate those sportsmen who “always give 110 per cent”. Doubtless those markings are more about increasing impetuosity, for it would have been impossible for Blechacz to increase the jaw-dropping tempi with which he began, for its headlong character would almost have threatened incoherence if it was not for his accuracy and precise articulation at such velocity. Perhaps a very slightly more measured approach would have let more light and shad into the music. But the songful (indeed, song-based) Andantino possessed great charm, and the Scherzo and Rondo finale were splendidly despatched.

Chopin’s Op.24 is an attractive set of four mazurkas, containing some of the most familiar ones, not least the lyrically hesitant first in G minor and its successor in C minor where the pianist’s trills were delightfully bird-like. There are subtle connections between the four, and Blechacz played them as if they belonged together, with only brief pauses between them. In particular this made the last of them in B flat minor seem quite substantial, its several sections building to a fine coda that set the seal on the whole set. Here Blechacz recalled the great Chopin pianists of the past without sounding like any one of them in particular. Suffice to say it was difficult to imagine these intriguing but often elusive pieces played more ingratiatingly or idiomatically.

The same must be said of the superb performance of Chopin’s last Polonaise, the A flat major Op.53, where the nobility and bravura of the playing for once justified the works’ nickname of the "Heroic". Eschewing the pompous grand manner sometimes heard, here was subtle rubato within strict tempi, which produced a compelling narrative. The middle section produced a thunderstorm in those rapid descending left-hand octaves which recalled Liszt’s remark – “I hear the hooves of the Polish cavalry” – and the coda was terrific.

Given the increasing frequency of anniversary or single composer recitals, it was good to hear a traditional well-planned mixed programme of standard classics like this one. Yet on top of all his skill and eloquence throughout, Rafał Blechacz still sounds born to play Chopin.

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