English profiles

Amsterdam, 28 May 2015

It was interesting to talk to Rafal Blechacz since I could finally ask a lot of questions about the composer he is probably most associated with: Chopin. A long interview with a young pianist who was a clear winner of the Chopin Competition in 2005. 

Willem Boone (WB): How do you look back on the past ten years?

Rafal Blechacz (RB): October 2005, when I won first prize at the Chopin competition, was a very important moment in my career. It was the most important musical experience in my life, because from that moment on, I could play with great orchestras in great halls.

WB: Were you prepared for such a career?

RB: It was my dream to play for people all over the world. However, I was not used to signing contracts and I had no experience with agents. That was different from what I was used to: everything was new and I did not know what to do: I wanted to get in touch with conductors,  to work on repertoire and I had a lot of interesting concerts coming up!

WB: How difficult is it to be categorized “Chopin specialist” after winning the Chopin competition when you are Polish?

RB: Maybe I was not considered “specialist” everywhere, but in Japan and Poland, I was! I played a lot of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven before I won the competition and I find it important to perform music of other composers too in concerts or on records, therefore,  I focused on Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Szymanovsky too.

WB: What does being Polish add to your Chopin-interpretations?

RB: Maybe it is easier to play and understand the character of music that requires a specific rhythm, such as the Mazurkas and the Polonaises. I feel the rhythm when I play these pieces, but then again, there are so many pianists who are not Polish and who play his music so well! Having the right sensibility is the most important..

WB: What was your first contact with Chopin’s music?

RB: I was 10 or 11 years old and I prepared the programme for my first competition that was only for young children. I studied a lot of Bach and one composition by Chopin, his Nocturne opus 32/2. I remember being fascinated by the harmonies and wanted to play more of his music. However, Bach was my first fascination, I actually wanted to be an organist!

WB: Do you still play Bach on the piano?

RB: Yes, quite a lot: several Preludes and Fugues, the Italian Concerto, Partitas and the E-major concerto with orchestra.

WB: How do you see his music? Do you feel he is a “strong” composer, if so, how come his music is often sentimentalized?

RB: Yes, he is a strong composer who is very universal!  A lot of people play his music, especially from Asia and they understand him (laughs). Chopin is a composer with very different emotions, you can see that in his Polonaise-Fantaisie, its final is fantastic.
As to people sentimentalizing his music, maybe they have a bad understanding of it.. I listen to my heart, it’s the most important.  Of course, a lot depends on my mood, the piano and the acoustics of the hall too.

WB: Can you say that Chopin is a “tricky” composer: some pianists don’t play him at all (Schnabel, Curzon , Brendel),  others almost exclusively play his music (Haraciewicz, Askenase) and others who play varied programmes (Argerich, Freire) say he is “jealous”.

RB: The most important is to feel inside what you can play: sometimes I feel I should wait with certain pieces. You can see something similar with someone like Glenn Gould, who recorded a lot of Bach and Mozart and only one piece by Chopin. Chopin’s style is not easy to understand, especially in his dance-like music. It’s not easy either to create the right atmosphere in his Nocturnes. As I said before, there are international pianists who understand his style very well: Pollini plays him well and he is Italian.

WB: Your colleague Barry Douglas said in an interview that Chopin is good for your technique, what do you think?

RB: Absolutely, his music is not easy. It’s interesting to tell you that Debussy made me more sensitive to Chopin’s music! Thanks to him I can play Chopin better, Bach’s polyphony helped me a great deal too. For me, it has always been important to play other composers as well, both before and after the Chopin competition. Not long ago, I did the Brahms First Piano Concerto, it is a great piece, but it took me 8 years!

WB: Is it that difficult to learn?

RB: No, but I felt it was important to get close to Brahms’s music and sometimes it is difficult to combine with other concerts and trips..

WB: Your colleague Christian Zacharias said when comparing Chopin’s and Schubert’s melodies that Chopin’s were “corny” and “predictable”?

RB: I don’t know, Schubert is close to Mozart,  for me, Chopin is close to Mozart. He admired Mozart’s operas, but the influence of bel canto is another important element in Chopin’s music. There are some interesting links between Mozart, Schubert and Chopin..

WB: Alfred Brendel said more than once that Chopin requires such a technique that you can either play his music or “the other composers”, do you agree?

RB: Again, I don’t know. As I said before, Debussy made me better in Chopin’s music, Liszt helped me too. Thanks to Liszt, I improved my technique.

WB: What do you think of pianists who played only or a lot of Chopin, like Askenase? It is often suggested that they were not the best Chopin performers?

RB: Askenase also played Mozart and Brahms, but now he conducts.

WB: No, that is Vladimir Ashkenazy, I meant Stefan Askenase!

RB: It is difficult to say what is “the best” or “the worst”, each musician has a different understanding, I like Haraciewicz but I like Rubinstein too, especially his live recordings.

WB: And what do you think of completists like Magaloff?

RB: I only know his Mazurkas, but I like them very much, he had a good sound and he played the right tempos!
There was a pupil from Paderewski, Szomptka, who had an understanding of the Mazurkas that was very close to Chopin’s style. His rhythm was fluent, neither too fast, nor too slow. Also, there is Karl Koczalski, a pupil from Mikuli, who studied with Chopin. Koczalski was very good in Chopin in general.

WB: Who would you call the best Polish Chopin pianist?

RB: Rubinstein was an amazing pianist and not only in Chopin and Zimerman , everything he plays is interesting. Anderzewski is interesting too, but he doesn’t play a lot of Chopin, he concentrates more on the classic composers and Szymanovsky.

WB: And who do you find particularly interesting among the non-Polish pianists?

RB: I already mentioned Pollini, Michelangeli is Italian too and his 2nd Scherzo is fantastic and his 2nd Sonata is interesting. I like Argerich’s Preludes and 2nd Sonata.

WB: I have a friend who can’t listen to Martha Argerich in Chopin, especially in the Concertos,  since she never plays the same tempo and changes almost in every bar..

RB: Yes, her tempi are very fast in the Concertos, especially in the last movements, but I like it, I prefer her recording of the First Piano Concerto with Abbado.

WB: I heard an amazing performance of the 3rd Sonata, back in 1987, by Radu Lupu. It was a bit of an uneven reading and he started banging in the last movement, but I will never forget the magic of the 3rd movement….

RB: Where did he play that?

WB: In Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

RB: That’s a very nice hall!

WB: What are qualities a good Chopin player must have?

RB: A beautiful sound and a good technique, although that’s not the most important. And you must understand Polish rhythms.

WB: Can you learn the latter?

RB: Yes, there are some interesting books by Kochalsky and also letters from Chopin’s pupils describing their lessons with him.

WB: Do you remember interesting advice?

RB: Yes, for instance, the first Mazurka should not be played too fast in order to respect the rhythm. Also for the 2nd movement of the 2nd Piano Concerto where the fast passages should be played ppp. You should not forget that they had different instruments back then..

WB: How essential is rubato in Chopin?

RB: A lot of journalists ask me about how to use rubato, especially in Japan! Sometimes, I feel it should sound in a romantic or in classic way.

WB: Can that feeling change?

RB: Yes, sometimes I choose a different tempo, for instance in case of dry acoustics. Those circumstances can influence the rubato. It is difficult for a conductor when a pianist plays with a lot of rubato. In the recitative of the 2nd movement of the 2nd Concerto, it is difficult to be together!

WB: Liszt had a beautiful description of what rubato means: he pointed at a tree, its  branches moved in the wind, whereas the tree itself stood still…

RB: You have to remember the first tempo, if not you can lose the right atmosphere! Chopin said the left hand is the conductor. By the way, there is a different rubato for the Nocturnes than for the dance-like music. You can use more freedom in the Nocturnes.

WB: Who of the non-Polish prize winners of the Chopin competition do you rate as most interesting?

RB: I remember in 1995, when I was 10 years old that the first prize was not awarded, Alexei Sultanov, who died very young, won second prize. I remember him well, he played the 2nd Concerto. I thought it was important to listen to other pianists. I remember Yundi Li very well, when he won first prize in 2000.
For Poland, it was important when Zimerman won in 1975, it had been 20 years since Haraciewicz won first prize in 1955. The Polish were waiting for Zimerman, who won a lot of different awards, among others for the best Mazurkas, Polonaises and Concerto.

WB: I’d just to like to hear your opinion about the Chopin interpretations of a few really famous colleagues of yours: what do you think of Hoffman?

RB: I like his Waltzes and his 2nd Concerto a lot!

WB: Horowitz…

RB: He is interesting, but compared to Rubinstein, he had a completely different understanding of his music! His Polonaise opus 53 is nice, although it is not the way I would play it: he almost uses no pedal and some chords are very short. The octaves in the middle part are fantastic and his tempo is very good. As far as the dynamics are concerned, his fortes are too big, they are more suited for Tschaikofsky. Furthermore, I like his Mazurkas and I like his sound and the atmosphere of his live concerts.

WB: Rubinstein..

RB: My favourite in Chopin, along with Zimerman. I “accept” his tempo, feeling, sound, everything!

WB: Arrau….

RB: Fantastic, I like his performance of the 2nd Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra a lot, especially the 2nd part of the 2nd movement, in spite of his slow tempo. His Preludes are fantastic too.

WB: Do you know his Nocturnes?

RB: No, I haven’t heard them.

WB: I’ll send you a copy of them, his sound was always so great!

RB: Beethoven and Brahms by Arrau were wonderful too. I like the DVD of Beethoven 4rth Concerto with Muti and another one from Bonn where he played (among others) opus 111.

WB: Kempff, who has recorded only a few CDs with Chopin….

RB: No, I don’t know his Chopin

WB: Do you know Glenn Gould in the 3rd Sonata?

RB: Yes, and I don’t like it. Do you like his Mozart?

WB: No, I hate it!

RB: Me too!

WB: Ashkenazy…..

RB: He uses strong dynamics and contrasts are very big, his approach is interesting.

WB: Would you consider studying and performing all of Chopin’s works?

RB: In the future, why not? I have to prepare more Mazurkas, although maybe not for a recording. It would be very difficult to record all of them and to play the same rhythm for two weeks… It is important to be fresh every time. It’s difficult anyway to decide in a studio about the “right” tempo!

WB: Isn’t it as difficult in a concert?

RB: Yes, but each concert is different anyway!

WB: Which music of Chopin is the most difficult to grasp?

RB: The Mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantaisie. The Polonaise opus 44 is hard too, since its middle part is a Mazurka…

WB: The 3rd Sonata is difficult to bring off too, isn’t it?

RB: Yes, indeed, since it is a big scaled composition, more classical than the 2nd Sonata. Especially the 4rth movement is very different from the 3 preceding movements, it calls for a completely different atmosphere.

WB: What would you consider his greatest work?

RB: Maybe the Polonaise-Fantaisie, it’s his testament (laughs). Horowitz didn’t understand it, Richter played it too and I like what he did.

WB: What sets him apart as a composer?

RB: It’s hard to say, maybe the harmonies and the unexpected modulations. It’s very poetic music that has everything in it: there is a lot of sorrow, joy, melancholy…

WB: Joy? It’s not what I associate his music most with?

RB: I think there is joy in the Concertos, for instance in the last movement of the 2nd Concerto!

WB: Speaking of which, I like your recording of the Chopin concertos with the Concertgebouw Orchestra: I attended the concert and thought everything was beautifully clear and unsentimental!

RB: like Mozart!

WB: Has Chopin revolutionized the piano technique like Liszt did?

RB: No, his virtuosity is totally different, although his first compositions were written in a brilliant style. He had another approach to technique than Liszt. With Chopin, it was a way to make music. Liszt was fantastic in his own way, also in his last pieces or in his Sonata.

WB: Do you play the Liszt Sonata?

RB: No, I play other pieces like his Concertos, Etudes and the Rigoletto Paraphrase.

WB: You also advocate the music of Szymanovsky, he is not very well known, what can you tell us about him?

RB: He is not well known in my country either! I wanted to change that situation with my Debussy-Szymanovsky album. His 1st Sonata is not popular in Poland; it has a lot of influences of Scriabin, maybe a bit of Rachmaninov and Brahms. I played his Variations opus 3 almost everywhere. It is a cycle of 12 short variations, that are very different in character. There are a lot of chords and they have a virtuosic culmination.

WB: I love his Variations opus 10 that Zimerman has played !

RB: Yes, there are amazing.

WB: Was Szymanovsky a good pianist?

RB: Unfortunately he wasn’t. His Synfonia Concertante is not so difficult, because he wanted to play it himself..

WB: He knew how to write for the piano, though! The variations opus 10 are highly virtuosic!

RB: Yes, but he never played those. He was friends with Rubinstein to whom he dedicated the Variations opus 3. He could ask him for advice..

WB: Is there a lot of difference between his early and his last works?

RB: Yes, his late works were inspired by Polish folk music.  His works from the second period, Métopes and Masques, are more impressionistic.

WB: They sometimes remind me of Scriabin!

RB: Masques, yes, but not Métopes!

WB: Are there other Polish composers that you find worthwhile?

RB: Zimerman recorded works of Bacewicz, who also used a lot of Polish folk music. And Lutoslawski dedicated his Piano Concerto to Zimerman.

WB: Do you know the music of Zarebski?

RB: Yes, my professor recorded his music.

WB: Now you play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K 488, what is your relationship with this piece?

RB: I started to play when I was a child and before I participated in the Chopin Competition, I played this concerto with Jerzy Maksimiuk. It was broadcast through the whole country. I came back to it in 2006 and played it with different orchestras. I also prepared the C minor concerto K 491, which I played in Salzburg and Luzern. During this tour, we will play K 488 without conductor. I am very happy, because they play very well.

WB: Mozart is often considered a tricky composer, is he trickier than Chopin?

RB: Yes, he is. Like with Bach, it is difficult to find the right sound.

WB: I have a few questions about your fellow pianist Kristian Zimerman: is he your mentor?

RB: We first met before the Chopin competition, also in 2005. He came to Katowice  where he received a Doctorat honoris causa. He also did a master class for students who wanted to play in the competition. I played the Polonaise opus 53 and was a bit sad, since my lesson was very short.  He told me that I played well and asked me if I needed any help. After the competition, he sent me a beautiful letter with advice. He gave me his number. It was very important to speak to him about repertoire and agencies. He invited me in 2007 and we spent 5 or 6 days at his place. He bought me a camera and an iPad. We are still in touch via SMS and sometimes we meet abroad. We met in Japan when he played Bacewicz and Schumann with the Hagen Quartet and he came to my concert in New York.

WB: People say that he is never satisfied, so how difficult was it to work with him?

RB: That’s not true, he is happy sometimes! He was happy with his interpretation of the Lutoslawski concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam (I attended and it was quite good indeed, like all the other Zimerman concerts I attended, WB )

WB: Is he the biggest perfectionist ever?

RB: I don’t think so. He needs long to prepare and he wants to be 100% sure. He has taken care of everything before he can play on stage, as you know he travels with his own piano and tuner. I heard his recital of Beethoven opus 109, 110 and 111 last year in Germany and it was fantastic.

WB: Why is he so ferociously against CDs and radio broadcasts?

RB: He doesn’t like studio recordings. It is not easy to recreate the atmosphere of a concert. With an orchestra, it’s different, you have an “audience” in a way, since you make music together.

WB: I find it a bit of a shame he has re-recorded the Lutoslawski concerto with Rattle, whereas everybody wants him to record the Chopin sonatas. He keeps saying he is “not ready” but he plays them like nobody else…Will he be recording again you think?

RB: Maybe he recorded the Chopin sonatas, but he doesn’t want to release them… the Lutoslawski concerto is important to him, since it was dedicated to him.

WB: What are your future plans?

RB: I recorded Bach and the cd is waiting for release: it includes the Partitas nos 1 and 3, 4 Duets and the Italian Concerto. The DG-team comes to my concert in Amsterdam and then we will discuss further plans. I would love to record Beethoven concertos nos 2 and 4 with Trevor Pinnock. We have a very good contact. To be discussed!

WB: You said in another interview that you often travel by car, isn’t that exhausting?

RB: I have my car here! I feel more independent. I dislike airports or airplanes: they are often noisy, especially in Europe, you lose a lot of time. I like to travel after a concert, because there is too much adrenalin. I cannot sleep and therefore I drive for the next 2 or 3 hours.

WB: Aren’t you too exhausted to drive?

RB: No, I cannot sleep directly after a concert.

WB: What are you thinking of while driving?

RB: Sometimes I think about the concert I just played or I listen to CDs (not my own!) or I am talking to my father, who is the second driver. For a tour with concerts in Germany, France and Spain, it is easier to go by car. In the night there is not so much traffic..

WB: My last question: you also play the organ, in what way does that help you as a pianist?

RB: It was my first fascination! Bach on the organ sometimes teaches me the right legato in Bach. On a piano, you have to play legato with your fingers, whereas the pedals on an organ are used very differently. I use the organ legato in Bach on the piano in order to keep the clarity of sound. It’s easier to change the colours on the organ by using special registers.