CHOPIN: Polonaises = 2 Polonaises, Op. 26; 2 Polonaises, Op . 40; Polonaise in F-sharp Minor, Op. 44; Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53; Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 – Rafal Blechacz, piano – DGG B0018883-02, 59:47 [Distr. By Universal] ****:
Besides the mazurka, the polonaise rises in Chopin’s conception to a majestic combination of national dance form and aristocratic gesture of undaunted pride. That Chopin composed many of his most noted polonaises whilst in exile from his beloved Poland adds a special valediction to their affect, what the Poles call tesknota, a variation of nostalgia that injects a pungent longing. Rafal Blechacz (rec. January 2013) brings his ardent, youthful passion for Chopin to the studio, finding both ceremonial pomp and tender lyricism in each of the seven examples of the form as they evolve over the composer’s career.
Martial exuberance tumbles forth from the opening of the set, the C-sharp Minor Polonaise, Op. 26, No. 1 (1834), and even the lyrical middle section – marked con anima – provides little respite where Blechacz is concerned. Listen to Blechacz’s left hand as it extends the melodic line prior to the da capo. The E-flat Major Polonaise, Op. 26, No. 2 (1835) opens Maestoso and pianissimo, so Blechacz must balance its often contradictory emotions. The misterioso aspects of the piece assume a grander, national character in B Major, staccato. The martial filigree increases its urgency in bold sweeps; but the tenor of the work remains tragic and somber, much of the heroic panorama the brilliant runs promise internalized in the last pages, which close quietly, perhaps in resignation.
The familiar confidence of the A Major Polonaise, Op. 40, No. 1 (1838) Blechacz has well in hand, powerful and heroically assertive, Allegro con brio. Dedicated to Chopin’s friend Jules Fontana, the chordal energy and blazing trills convey a sense of irresistible triumph. If the A Major proves Poland’s moral victory, the ensuing C Minor Polonaise (1839) admits defeat and moments of despair. Blechacz’s left hand must punctuate the bitter news, although the quick runs rebel against the fall, a valediction forbidding mourning. An arioso song emerges even as the drums and hoofs fade into the distance, and a stamping gesture might be Poland’s or the world’s aching heart.
The most massive “pure” polonaise of the set, the F-sharp Minor Polonaise, Op. 44 (1841), combines several forms, including scherzo, fantasy, ballade, and mazurka, in its vast canvas. The four-note motif embraces fate and extends a national passion in waves of octaves. Liszt called the piece “the lurid hour that precedes a hurricane.” The potent folk element asserts itself most percussively, then relents into soft arpeggios and trills, the alternation’s repeating itself. Blechacz projects a truly dreamy middle section, mazurka-style, rife with what John Ogden called “Goya-like intensity” as the textures and registers shift in harmonically adventurous patterns. Blechacz thunders the last pages out as if Valhalla or the Furies called for a final judgment. The most popular of all Chopin’s polonaises, the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 (1842) erupts in what Huneker called “fiery projectiles of tone” in huge masses. The central section in E Major smacks of eternally convinced horsemen, not only Polish cavalry but from The Apocalypse. Connoisseurs will likely make favorable comparisons to Blechacz’s athletic prowess in this piece with firebrand Gyorgy Cziffra’s various plummets through this expression of unbridled nationalism.
The labyrinthine Polonaise-Fantasie (1845) remains a highly introspective piece, more fantasy than national dance, opening with ominous chords and recitative-like patterns Chopin will develop later. The challenge of somehow uniting its various improvisatory – chains of trills and dotted notes – and martial identity into one emotional whole confronts Blechacz, who takes a rather breathless approach at first to contrast his episodic excursions into wistful melody and idiosyncratic polyphony. The virility and poetic lacunae Blecacz imposes on this often dreamy sequence of affects proves compelling – and in the last pages, quite titanic – though generally of a softer sensibility than we know from Horowitz and Pires.
Recorded sound, courtesy of Tonmeister Rainer Maillard, consistently lulls us with the suavity of Blechacz’s keyboard tone.