Rafal Blechacz Plays Chopin – DG

by | Mar 28, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Funeral March”; Nocturne in F# Minor; Piano Sonata No. 3; Barcarolle in F# Major– Rafal Blechacz, piano – DG 486 3428 (66:00) (3/3/23) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Recorded in Berlin from September to October 2021, this Chopin recital by Rafal Blechacz (b. 1985) comes from his deep response to a series of world catastrophes – this especially true for the “Funeral March” Sonata – given the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Blechacz, the winner of the 2005 Warsaw International Chopin Competition, had lived with this repertory for some time, and he felt the occasion ripe for his commitment to musical posterity. 

Blechacz imposes a luxurious gravity into the first four measures of the B-flat Minor Sonata (1839), whose descents prove elemental later on, then surging into the gallop propels further into the Chopin chiaroscuro exploration of the passions. With the secondary, dolce theme, Blechacz indulges his own capacities for rubato, the tenderness under assault by the spasmodic ride to the gallows, which at moments becomes a paroxysm of Romantic Agony. The coda from Blechacz underlines the bass main theme as the right hand ascends to a mighty, B-flat Major cadence.

The E-flat Minor Scherzo enjoys an alert propulsion, permeated with aggressive double notes, acerbic octaves, and chordal leaps, a demonstration of compressed bravura. The middle section offers no end of nocturnal consolation, touched by a quick trill, descending scales, and round arpeggios. The aggression resumes, only to be interrupted by a tender moment from the Trio, whose warm mode in G-flat Major, has softened the blows of fate, especially those about to emerge in movement three. Blechacz realizes the monumental Funeral March (1837, the first music composed) with an ennobled, tragic awareness, the trill now having assumed a Dante or Liszt gravitas. Its own middle section overflows with pathos, a nostalgic, bel canto lament of sweet sympathy for humanity. Its dying away leads to the inexorable pulse of the epic Funeral March, which somehow invokes that long walk by actress Alida Valli in the last scene from Carol Reed’s The Third Man after Harry Lime’s second funeral. The Presto, which Robert Schumann considered a sphinx all its own, rages across the fields and over the graves with a swelling, grotesque mania accountable only to itself. 

Portrait of Chopin


In his accompanying liner note, Blechacz admits he consistently attaches the 1841 Nocturne in F# Minor to the Op. 35 Sonata, since they share a moment of harmonic progression, besides their tragic impulse. The 4/4 Andantino proceeds in aristocratic sweetness, moving to a più lento in D-flat in waltz time that, from Blechacz, moves in parlando-recitative. Structurally, the coda rather intrudes on what might have been a recap of the opening measures, modulating now in soft trills and a rising arpeggio to the tonic major, a consolation of sorts.

The 1844 Sonata in B Minor has had its great exponents in the likes of Cortot, Lipatti, Rubinstein, Cherkassky, Casadesus, and Malcuzynski, among others. Blechacz plays the opening movement, Allegro maestoso, for its lyrical impulse, even taking the expansive, first movement repeat so that its suave transition to the D Major second subject becomes a savory moment in piano color. The first movement now assumes a more epic girth, substituting the bel canto second theme and its silken, keyboard palette as the basis of the recapitulation, after a floridly intricate development. The intricacies of Chopin’s late, contrapuntal style resound with clearly articulated lines, sometimes suggesting to us a Romantic version of a Bach toccata.

Blechaz whips the etude-like E-flat Major Scherzo into dazzling shape, moving the rivulets of right hand eighth notes against a chordal process in the left. The lithe motion gains a blinding speed in its ternary return of the opening impulse, setting up in juxtaposition the extreme contrast to the pungent, initial, dotted rhythm (in B Major) of the ensuing Largo, which will evolve into Chopin’s most hypnotic nocturne in E Major. Along with the last piece of the program, the eloquent Barcarolle, we have Chopin’s true victory over the percussive element in keyboard performance. The Sonata’s arioso third movement, set in periods over an ostinato bass, shifts in subtle harmonic progress, gaining a coloratura aura. 

Chopin opts for high drama in rondo form for his Finale: Presto non tanto, the opening’s lingering on a high dominant seventh chord that unleashes a maelstrom of an emotional gallop worthy of D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner.”  In the midst of the whirlwind, a chordal melody in B Major arises, but it does not halt the turbulent momentum Blechacz has at his disposal. The sheer chromatic palette of this astounding pianistic vehemence quite carries us away in a B Major blaze of glory.

What a dramatic contrast from the finale of the Sonata, the 1846 Barcarolle, a work thoroughly immersed in the Neapolitan spirit. Blechacz sets the music’s recurrent thirds and sixths, its flowing scalar patterns and idiosyncratic counterpoint – especially in the A Major central part –  as a vast, watery paean to the Italian bel canto tradition, the piano now a coloratura instrument in its often baritone or soprano guise. The flowing waters of Venice, or at least its buoyant gondolas, seem garlanded with florid wreaths of chromatics, restrained but no less ardent for their adherence to musical form. 

Just over an hour of pure, Chopin enchantment.

—Gary Lemco

Rafal Blechacz plays Chopin:

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 “Funeral March”;
Nocturne in F# Minor, Op. 48/2;
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58;
Barcarolle in F# Major, Op. 60

More Information through Deutsche Grammophon

Album Cover for Rafa Blechacz Plays Chopin

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