Rafal Blechacz transfers his natural affinity for Chopin to the music of Chopin’s idol, Sebastian Bach.
BACH: Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971; Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825; Four Duets, BWV 802-805; Fantasia and Fugue in a minor, BWV 944; Partita No. 3 in a minor, BWV 827; Jesus bleibet meine Freude (arr. Hess) BWV 147 – Rafal Blechacz, piano – DGG 479 5534, 65:54 (3/3/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****:
Polish piano virtuoso Rafal Blechacz (b. 1985) transfers his penchant for Chopin to selected works by Bach that highlight the close relationship between the ancient harpsichord and modern keyboard sonority, insofar as Blechacz – following in the Glenn Gould tradition – means to impart lyrical clarity as the main ingredient in the Bach contrapuntal ethos. Blechacz has chosen particular works from Bach’s Clavier-Uebungen as his source, works collected in a series of four volumes, 1735-1741. Many of the pieces present dance music of varied national styles, as well as virtuoso works that display the capacity of the keyboard to imitate the manuals of the harpsichord or the deep sonority and spacious range of the organ.
A fine example of Blechacz’s approach comes to us by way of the a minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 944, a Weimar composition (c. 1712) whose opening, ten-bar Fantasia allows Blechacz luxurious arpeggios in an improvisatory style, followed by an ambitious Fugue, whose subject derives from the organ fugue in the same key, BWV 543. The sudden thrusts of energy assume increased weight and thickness as the piece evolves, never relenting in its frenzy of toccata-like demands that Blechacz realizes with a palpable relish.
The 1735 Italian Concerto opens the program, whose outer movements, rife with elastic, vital propulsion, bounce and sing as the ripieno and tutti elements alternate with sonorous differentiation and character. The perseverance of strict counterpoint proceeds so fluidly that we hardly feel its tensile strength in a piece of such brilliance and ornamented exuberance. For the d minor Andante Blechacz provides a long, flexible cantabile underpinned by that rich ostinato that sets the piece in middle earth.
In the same spirit as Sviatoslav Richter, Blechacz addresses the Four Duets from Part III of the Bach “keyboard-studies.” The two outer duets, set in the minor keys of e and a, present an austere, even sullen, emotional landscape, haunted and forward looking harmonically to an age of crisis. We might find the same angst in parts of the late Musical Offering. The interior duets, in F and G, assume the traditional guise of two-part inventions, optimistic and touched by an impish grace. Etched and nuanced, these dances enjoy a tug or two of personal rubato that adds charm to their intellectual color. The occasional hard patina Blechacz applies seems to pay tribute ot Gould and Richter, at once.
The two piano partitas Blechacz chooses demonstrate the Master’s penchant for diverse, national styles in highly ornamented figures. The 1726 Partita No. 1 Bach saw published by Balthasar Schmid in Leipzig. This lightly scored, optimistic suite of dances found one definitive moment of realization by Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti. Here, Blechacz adopts a clear, transparent touch, marked by his own sense of rhythmic flux. In a stylized, galant mode, we receive the brief Praeludium as an invention in three parts that expands to five voices in its last measures. The quick alternation of the hands in sixteenths defines the Allemande, which retains a deft lightness in spite of the breathless pace. No less propulsive, the Courante segues to the lovely, Spanish-based Sarabande, in ornamental melancholy. The music-box ideal dominates the two Menuets, a real showpiece for this performance. The startling and delightful Gigue in 4/4 crosses hands in triplet motion that Blechacz executes as a true etude-toccata.
The Partita No. 3 has its own joys: the 3/8 Fantasia moves assertively in a kind of antiphonal ecstasy. Likewise, the Courante seems eager to demonstrate that Blechacz can happily divide steady sixteenths in one hand and piercing, dotted figures in the other. The Allemande savors passing grace notes and mordants with regal stateliness. The introverted Sarabande could be attributed to Scarlatti’s lonely mood. The two ensuing movements – Burlesca and Scherzo – endure as much for their unique designations as for their motor vitality. The piece de resistance comes in the form of a mighty Gigue in 12/8, restless and complex. Blechacz assigns decisive character to each of the major voice-periods in this audacious flexion of the Baroque imagination.
Finally, the signature-piece for Dinu Lipatti: the Myra Hess transcription from last chorale from Cantata 147. The delicate singing line over bell tones from Blechacz becomes lyrically mesmeric, as it should be, its consolation devoutly to be wished.