"I must say that Chopin's music always was very close to me, to my personality, to my heart. And it was the greatest of rewards to me." That's 28-year-old Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz. His second recording for Deutsche Grammophon is a collection of Polonaises by Chopin.
Blechacz's career was launched in October 2005, when he became the sole winner of the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Blechacz received all five prizes, including First Prize and special prizes for best mazurka, polonaise, concerto and sonata. He's garnered a lot of attention since then, and just a few weeks ago, Rafal won another prestigious award, one for which he didn't even have to compete: the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Prize, which is awarded once every four years. The jury hand-picks a pianist it believes has the potential to sustain a career as a major international concert artist.
The Gilmore Artist Prize is an award for which Blechacz wouldn't have been eligible had he followed his first musical instinct. "It was my dream to play the organ in the church not the piano. I was totally fascinated by the huge sound of the organ. But when I started to play the piano after the first lessons, I realized that maybe this is the right instrument for me. And after my first concerts, my first small competitions in my country, I really wanted to be a pianist and play for the people, for the audience, all over the world."
Rafal Blechacz is living his dream, which started when he was a child playing Chopin polonaises. Since winning the Chopin competition, Blechacz is revisiting all 23 of those Polish dances, seven of which appear on this latest release.
The polonaise was originally a dance performed at rural weddings. By the 17th century, polonaises evolved into courtly dances of the Polish aristocracy. Two centuries later, in the hands of Chopin, the polonaise was transformed into a brilliant dance fueled by the spirit of Chopin's homeland.
Blechacz's recording opens with the Op. 26 Polonaises. These two works were written in 1830 and 1831, at a time when the Poles had risen up against the Russians. While the Polonaise No. 1 in C sharp minor is assertive yet lyrical, the Polonaise No. 2 in E flat minor is somber and foreboding. This contrast in moods is common in Chopin's early works, according to Blechacz. "In Chopin's music, there is a full palette of emotions," he says. "For example, there is a lot of melancholy. But there is also a lot of joy, especially in his early compositions. We experience in our life a lot of emotions, a lot of characters. And I am always very happy when I can express these emotions, these feelings by the music, with the music. So I think that my role, the pianist's role, is to enter into Chopin's feelings and re-create them afresh."
There are similar contrasts in the Op. 40 Polonaises. The Polonaise No. 1 in A major is exuberant and fearless. Rafal says it's no accident that it's still the signature tune of Polish radio. The Polonaise No. 2 in C minor, on the other hand, strikes a tone of mystery with dark, rumbling octaves in the left hand.
"Perhaps the most perfect piece in the whole history of the polonaise is the A flat Major Polonaise, Op. 53, an incredible masterpiece," Blechacz proclaims. Blechacz loves the power and brilliance of this work, which is known as the "Heroic" Polonaise. An array of unique colors burst forth, and then near the end, there is a moment of tender reflection.
In his music, Chopin expresses very deep, intimate feelings that are sometimes difficult to explain. On his new collection of Chopin polonaises, Rafal Blechacz has no trouble tapping into the composer's intentions. "Chopin would like to say something important," Blechacz explains, "and sometimes it's very difficult to say what it is, exactly. But with the music, I can say everything."