Classical CD Reviews

CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 – Rafal Blechacz, piano/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jerzy Semkow – DGG

Both Blechacz and Semkow impart a feeling of freedom, the national figures seeming to arise spontaneously out of their own lyric impulse.

Published on February 21, 2010

CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 – Rafal Blechacz, piano/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jerzy Semkow – DGG

CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 – Rafal Blechacz, piano/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jerzy Semkow – DGG 477 8088, 74:55 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Rafal Blechacz won the 2005 Warsaw Chopin Competition and therefore has the right to play all the Chopin he desires. He does possess a real sympathy for the composer and a strong set of fingers, as witnessed by this writer in San Jose, where Blechacz performed the set of Op. 28 Preludes within an integrated vision. For the two concertos (rec. July 2009) he collaborates with Polish conductor Jerzy Semkow (b. 1928), who has made Chopin work with soloists like Tamas Vasary and Maurizio Pollini.

The E Minor Concerto benefits from the long orchestral introduction, plastic and warm, courtesy of the Royal Concertgebuow strings, winds, horns, and recording engineer Rainer Maillard. The transition to E Major is perhaps the first movement’s most fascinating contribution, the three main themes supported by a minimalist orchestral tissue that provides a kind of halo around the keyboard. The general tone of the movement lies in the nocturne, which Blechacz applies with a silken line, shaded by personal rubato and degrees of dynamic variety that prove most engaging. When the rhythm picks up, quasi-krakowiak, the mutual filigree between piano and inflamed orchestra becomes dramatically intense, certainly on a par with the classic collaborations by Brailowsky and Rubinstein. The balance of bravura and poetry Blechacz negotiates with pearly fervor, his upper register clearly without the over-bright “ping” that ruins many a piano inscription. I well like the move to the recapitulation, with Semkow’s underlining the bass harmonies and insisting on clear articulation from the woodwinds.

The Larghetto, too, exploits E Major as a source of poetic reverie, and Blechacz integrates his cantilena into a color brew that includes some strong writing for the bassoon. Several thoughtful ritards inform this rendition, whose declamatory-parlando episodes convey as rich a tapestry as the brilliant fioritura that owes its vocal, even chime-like quality to the influence of Bellini’s operas. The last movement, a bold rondo in the manner of Hummel and Kalkbrenner, sings in the syncopated duple meter quite fleetly in Blechacz’s modulated performance. What I particularly admire in this rendition is the feeling of freedom both Blechacz and Semkow impart, the national figures seeming to arise spontaneously out of their own lyric impulse.

The F Minor Concerto (1830) we must recall is basically a student work, but testifies to a most precocious talent. The temper of the music, composed a good year prior to the E Minor Concerto, seems more impassioned, more impulsive and frenetic in its declamations and vaults to the stars. The music well serves a vehicle for Chopin’s own keyboard talent, his penchant for ornamental lines and poetic meditation. At moments, the writing becomes modest and bare, the keyboard playing a thin soprano melodic line with secco accompaniment. The flexibility and tensile gossamer quality of the arioso tissue makes for compelling listening, for rarely has the piano sung in such transparent textures. When Semkow’s trumpets and tympani come bursting in, they do so in a grand manner, striding forth in national rhythms that were soon to announce Chopin’s departure for Paris. Piano and oboe move to the development of the first movement in resonant acrobatic terms, the agility and lithe filigree constantly ablaze in autumnal colors. Blechacz emphasizes the vertical unity and contiguity of the two hands, their often bold accommodation of Lydian harmony to Chopin’s own uses. The martial swagger of the first movement has rarely enjoyed such a superb notion of harmonic closure.

The heart of the F Minor Concerto, again, lies in the wonderful Larghetto movement, a love song for Konstancia Gladkowska but later dedicated to Countess Delphine Potocka. Chopin’s exquisitely ornamental style fuses with bel canto operatic procedure that flows and ebbs quite naturally until the tremolando dramatic middle section, which even for a young composer of twenty, comes as a dark revelation. The sparkling filigree back to the da capo mark Blechacz as a special sound at the keyboard.  The last movement Rondo moves from art song to national dance, the rhythm’s exploiting the mazurka and the sound of col legno strings. The middling tempo Semkow provides gives us enough of the folk details in the coloration to complement Blechacz’s brisk acrobatics and so ensure a modern classic realized before our very ears.

–Gary Lemco




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