At age 27, Poland’s Rafał Blechacz sports a career that a much older classical pianist could be proud of, having already earned a category-sweeping victory at the International Chopin Piano Competition, a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and widespread respect for his rigorous yet expressive interpretations. Last Sunday morning, we reached Blechacz at the home of his uncle in New Jersey, where he was relaxing with his family and practicing the piano for a few days before a handful of U.S. recitals, including one at Duke Performances this Friday. Blechacz discusses how winning the Chopin competition gave him a new life and offers thoughts on balancing the composer’s wishes with the “individual atmosphere” of the performer.
The Thread: When you found out you had won all the first prizes in the 2005 Chopin Competition, were you shocked or did you know you had nailed it?
Rafał Blechacz: I felt that I played quite good. [Laughs] I had my own strategy during the whole competition. I wanted to be concentrated only on my music, my program, my interpretation. So I didn’t listen to other pianists, listen to the radio, watch TV, or even read newspapers. I didn’t want to know about the competition; I wanted to be completely in my musical world. I think it helped me to keep the right atmosphere. But when I heard the final results, I didn’t expect that it would be so good for me. I was very happy and my family as well. It was important that I also got the other prizes, for the performances of mazurkas, concertos, sonatas, polonaises, and also the prize from the audience.
You were the first Polish pianist to win since Krystian Zimerman in 1975. What did he do for you?
He sent me a very beautiful letter after I won and invited me to his house in Basel. We spent five or six days together, playing music, discussing repertoire as well as things that were completely new for me. This was a new reality for me, a new life. For example, the musical agencies—I didn’t know which would be best for the young artist at the beginning of the career. The experience of Krystian Zimerman, his advice about music life, is very rich and very important for me.
You’ve played in countries all over the world—do you have a favorite to perform in?
Each country is a bit different; its audiences, its public. I like playing in Europe very much, the United States, and of course Japan is a very important country for me, because Chopin music is so famous there. I have my own fan club in Japan. It was always my dream to play for people all over the world, and since the competition in 2005, I can do it. This is my fifth time in the United States. I like the public here. I remember my first concert here was in 2008 at the Gilmore Festival. It’s a prestigious place and I was happy when I got the invitation. Also, I had a very good impression when I played with the New York Philharmonic in 2008. We played Chopin’s second concerto together and it was a wonderful experience for me to play with the great orchestra in New York.
Have you noticed any differences between, say, Japanese and European audiences?
The differences are not so big. In Japan, when I play Chopin, I know the concert hall will be completely full, because Chopin is amazing for them. I think that which program I offer to each country is very important. The first tour in Japan, seven years ago, was only Chopin music, because it was a request from my Japanese agency. But when I play in Germany and France and the U.K., I think it’s very good to combine the program, to present different styles and composers. So usually I am playing Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart in the first parts of the recitals, and in the second parts I often play Romantic music—Chopin and Schumann, for example. During my recitals in this season, I present quite a lot of Debussy and Szymanowski, which is connected to my last recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Szymanowski is not so popular in Europe and also in my country, Poland, so I would like to present him more.
Can you tell us about him?
My story with Szymanowski started quite early. I was ten or eleven and attended a concert of Polish pianists in Bydgoszcz, the Polish city where I studied. I found Szymanowski’s music then and wanted to play it more and more. I remember that the first piece I started to play was the Variations in B-flat minor, Op. 3, an absolutely wonderful piece. After the Chopin Competition, I presented it quite often in many countries. Not long ago, I started to play Szymanowski’s first sonata, the Op. 8. This is early music for Szymanowski. There are a lot of influences from Scriabin’s music, I think. The harmonies are interesting, with a lot of unexpected modulations but also a lot of poetry. Typical Polish folk music was also a big inspiration for Szymanowski. He wrote a lot of mazurkas, Polish dances. So Szymanowski is very special.
What about other important composers in your early development?
Debussy made me more sensitive to the colors and shades of sounds, which is absolutely important in other music—Chopin, for example. My first teacher was fascinated by Bach, and I remember that when I was a child, five or six years old, I wanted to be an organist and played a lot of Bach music. When I started to play piano, I realized it was the right instrument for me.
How do you like working in the studio as opposed to on stage?
They are so completely different. When I signed the contract with Deutsche Grammophon, I was happy that I had already done one CD in 2005, with Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, Szymanowski, and Debussy, recorded for a Polish company. So I had a little experience with the studio. When I am in the studio with only the instrument and the microphones, I think that it is possible, if difficult, to create a similar atmosphere to the concert.
What matters to you as a pianist?
I think it’s important to find individual style and be completely natural in the interpretation of the music. I think it’s very important to keep all the composer’s intentions—this is the key to developing the individual interpretation. Also important is to hear your own intonation—to hear my heart, when I play a Chopin mazurka, for instance. Some journalists, when I am in Japan, ask me about how to use the rubato tempo in mazurkas by Chopin, but it’s very difficult to explain. It depends on a lot of elements—the acoustics of the concert hall, the intonation of the instrument; but also my mood, my own individual atmosphere during the concert.