Rafał Blechacz has released his latest album with the major German label Deutsche Grammophon (DG). It features his interpretations of the seven Polonaises by Chopin, where his previous disc of Debussy and Szymanowski works received the distinguished Fryderyk Award in Poland for best classical-music album.
The polonaise is a traditional dance that originated in the Polish countryside. In the second half of the 18th century it began being performed at the salons of local magnates and soon found its place in royal ballrooms. The musical pieces that accompanied these salon dances has been composed and recorded by outstanding pianists from Fryderyk Chopin and Arthur Rubinstein to today's virtuosos including Ivo Pogorelić and Krystian Zimerman. A recent resurgence of interest in the polonaise inspired avant-garde jazz composer and pianist Marcin Masecki to record Polonezy, his interpretations of the music performed by wind orchestra.
Now Rafał Blechacz is releasing Chopin Polonaises, his DG disc dedicated to the composer's reverred compositions in the form. In an interview with Culture.pl, the winner of the Chopin International Piano Competition in 2005 talks about what the polonaise is to him, and reveals details about his latest album.
Filip Lech (Culture.pl): In music history, polonaise pieces have been written not only by Chopin, but also by Bach, Mozart and others. What is the essence of the polonaise for you?
Rafał Blechacz: First of all, the polonaise is very strongly associated with Polish national culture. In the beginning it was a typical dance and later it became stylised by composers, initially Polish ones but later it also penetrated European music. Its peak form was brought about by Polish composers, most notably by Fryderyk Chopin. He gave the mazurka and the polonaise their artistic shapes.
I consider the polonaise an absolute determinant of our national culture and any accurate interpretation that cuts it out is impossible. This isn’t to say that only Polish pianists can interpret these songs. The most important part of any interpretation is the artistic sensibility and thanks to this a pianist is able to interpret the mazurka or the polonaise even without Polish roots. Examples like these are numerous.
From among your predecessors, do you have an ideal performance of the polonaise that is the most accurate interpretation?
There aren’t that many recordings of the seven Polonaises by Chopin. I’m very fond of the interpretation done by Arthur Rubinstein and I believe I have all of his recordings of these pieces from three different periods of his creativity. His vision of the polonaise and the mazurka has always been close to me. I also appreciate the polonaise cycle that was done by Maurizio Pollini for Detusche Grammophon in 1976. Since then no one has recorded the complete set of Chopin’s Polonaises for the label.
What led you to choose this selection from the repertoire?
I often performed all the polonaise pieces at various concerts both in Europe and the United States, playing on an assortment of pianos. Approximately two years ago I decided that it would be worth it to record these pieces. For the same reason, this is why my last album featured lesser-known works not by Chopin. Now is the time for these pieces that are more popular and also wonderful and very beautiful.
How was the album recorded?
Of course I recorded it in a studio. In the same studio that I recorded my first album, Chopin Preludes. The instrument was picked from the concert hall in Hamburg almost without thinking. The wide tonal volume articulates all the critical climaxes that are so important to the polonaise, and the pieces sound very nice on that piano. Also, the typical lyrical parts come out very beautifully. I had the opportunity to find different shades, colours and sounds with this piano.
Do you have a favourite polonaise? On the album we find the famous Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, which is considered the most difficult and extremely variable.
Polonaise-Fantaisie is really unique. It’s a very demanding work because of its formality, it has many fragments that contrast the emotional and the dynamic and seem torn apart, separated only by a long pause. I always have the feeling when doing this interpretation of the polonaise, that it weighs an awful lot. You could describe it metaphorically by saying that the recordings of the other six Polonaises by Chopin could go on one disc, and the second disc would have just the Polonaise-Fantaisie.
Have you played these Polonaises for a long time? In hindsight, can you specify when you fully matured in performing the pieces?
I can recall my first tour with Chopin’s material, in Japan in 2006, a year after the Chopin Competition. I had 12 recitals and at each of them I played the Polonaise-Fantaisie. From concert to concert the piece and I got closer. During the last recital I had the feeling that I experienced an emotional adventure similar to the physical traveling I did while performing each recital in a different Japanese city.
After this I took a long break from the piece and then returned to it. I concluded the Year of Chopin with a concert and my perspective on the piece had been being shaped that whole time. But I didn’t decide to record the piece until now.
What will the promotion of the new album entail?
I’ll be playing concerts in Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States. After some of the shows I will be selling the album, autographing programmes and establishing contact with the audience.
Do you have any plans for future recording and additions to your repertoire?
The plans for my repertoire are no secret: I will be performing concerts of the music of Karol Szymanowski and Fryderyk Chopin. Early recitals have the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. When it comes to music with orchestra, Schumann’s Piano Concerto is king. My next recording project will remain a secret, but the next album will not have Chopin nor will it be devoted to Polish music.
Author: Filip Lech, September 2013
Translation: SMG 16/09/2013