Jacek Hawryluk: Your Chopin discography was introduced by preludes, followed by concertos, now it’s time for polonaises. Do you have a concrete plan according to which you move in the catalogue of Chopin works?
Rafał Blechacz: The disc with polonaises is a natural consequence of work on this repertoire. They were already ready for recording a long time ago. In March last year I told myself: “I’ll record polonaises op. 26, op. 40 and these three great final ones, that is, F-sharp minor, A-flat major and Polonaise-Fantasy”. There was no point in postponing this programme. I remember performing Polonaise-Fantasy in 2006 during the first tour across Japan. Then I gave 12 recitals and played this work every time. I already had a feeling then that I was “approaching” this composition concert by concert. Later the same story was with the others.
Where was this record made?
- In Hamburg, at the same studio, where I recorded Chopin preludes and then a disc with the works by Debussy and Szymanowski. The same conditions, the same team. And this Steinway piano concert grand model D, perfect for playing Chopin polonaises.
This was my sixth time at the recording studio including the disc recorded before the Chopin Competition. It is essential to present material during concerts – as it isn’t convenient to enter a studio with the work which has never been performed on stage. More importantly, a free interpretation of music works is a necessary condition. At some point when working on polonaises I realized how much performance freedom these compositions provide an artist with and in such different elements.
To capture the solemnity of dance, its idiomatic aspect comprises the most important task for the pianist performing polonaises. But what seemed to be most difficult?
- When the decision about recording was already made, any and all difficulties disappeared and I felt strong enough to take up recording. However, I remember having problems to express the gloomy character of polonaises e-flat major and c-minor in the preparation phase. How to interpret this darkness and menace achieved by Chopin by means of low registers? To play pianissimo of adequate accords is not enough. So I tried to apply pedalization, but this wasn’t a good idea either. Then I had an epiphany that harmonious thinking is a key to success.
At the memorable 2005 Chopin Competition in Warsaw you were also awarded with a special accolade for the best polonaise performance. Today, it seems to me that you are in a different phase …
- It’s natural that a pianist who performs the same works – across several years in different concert conditions and on other pianos – gains experience and courage.
As far as polonaise A-flat major op. 53 is concerned, the pace is slightly more lively now, but also focusing more on the first rhythmic value and emphasizing the culmination makes a better impression. Therefore the sound is nobler. Perhaps I feel more at ease in the octave part? Here I bet on grand rubato. However there’s no point in getting any further into the analysis of something which is a thing of the past.
Chopin wrote the following words in one of his letters to his family in December 1845: “Now I’d like to finish Sonata with violin, Barcarole and something else which I don’t know how to entitle and I doubt whether I would have any time at all as turmoil starts”. “Something else” was Polonaise – Fantasy, a work which caused a lot of trouble to musicologists, not to mention pianists. What was your key to this polonaise?
- It’s an amazing work. Already at the beginning I had some moments which brought tears to my eyes – there is so much untold sorrow, suffering and tension here and this polonaise elegance, particularly in the first part of the work when Chopin presents a typical rhythm and melodies based on this rhythm.
Soon after the Japan tour I resigned from performing this composition, but never stopped thinking about it. So in 2010 I returned to it and finished with this work almost every recital. After such a composition you find it difficult what to play an encore, because I believe that you shouldn’t play anything at all upon the final accord of Polonaise-Fantasy. So sometimes I decided to perform Mazurka A-minor op. 17. Maybe Bach choral prelude would be suitable? In fact, there should be six polonaises recorded on one disc with only Polonaise-Fantasy on the other one. This would illustrate the meaning of this composition as it is a distinct work and it’s hard to compare with the remaining polonaises or even other Chopin works. It’s a metaphysical poem about suffering. There’s such a specific place after the choral piece which is full of longing and depression. And then suddenly appears a fermata which is a symbol of death to me. After the pause there’s some deep sorrow, an absolute resignation and impossibility to return to what was before. The final is in fact an apotheosis of a final victory. Thus, a victory through suffering. A lot of metaphysics can be found here.
Perhaps such an interpretation is much closer to me as I deal with philosophy a bit? Maybe this work reaches the mystery of existence, because suffering - physical and spiritual – is a part of our lives? Suffering is like a gate through which we leave this world. To me Chopin left his testament in this work.
Polonaise-Fantasy rounds off a disc with grand Chopin polonaises. Do you still play these first childhood polonaises?
- I used to have some nice episodes with them in childhood and as a teenager. The first three ones and the later ones – G-sharp minor and B-major – were recorded for TVP (public broadcasting corporation) in Żelazowa Wola. This was in 1999 – the Chopin Year. This experience definitely influenced my further understanding of the polonaise logic as a dance form. But the knowledge of Polish history, texts by Mickiewicz and Sienkiewicz gave me really a lot. So did Norwid literature. He was the one who spoke about polonaise like that: to us Poles, the value of polonaise rhythm is the same as epic to Greeks as regards the development of a song.
Do you have your favourite records of polonaises?
- I haven’t analyzed other recordings or listened to them much. And I didn’t listen at all when a decision about recording was made. Naturally I perfectly remember the interpretations of Arthur Rubinstein even from different periods. Some of his recordings are very lively, dynamic, but I’ve never had a feeling that it isn’t a polonaise. It takes a lot of craftsmanship to have this ease of interpretation without any harm to the specific character of the work.
And now when the disc has been released, are you closing the notes of polonaises and focus on other works? Or will they come back to appear at concerts?
- No, I’m not closing op. 40 as I’m going to perform the polonaises A-major and C-minor in some recitals in this season. This is a less frequently performed opus. But I must admit that polonaises don’t actually occur in the European concert halls. I’m also going to play the Scherzo No. 3 by Chopin, the Partita No. 3 by Bach, the early Sonata by Beethoven D-major, Op. 10 No. 3 at the concerts. As for the performances with the orchestra, it’s the concert by Robert Schumann that prevails now.
Does it mean that Schuman works will be on the subsequent disc?
- No, not now at least. The phonographic plans are different. I can only tell you that I already have two subsequent projects planned. The first one, solo, is actually arranged in its all details. The second, orchestra one in 70% - there’s already an orchestra, the conductor and repertoire. We’re only looking for convenient dates.
What about your studies?
- I still study philosophy. Recently I have been involved in polonaises, mazurkas and waltzes in the context of contemplation on the ease in the interpretation of a composition. I’m going to finish my studies before the next Chopin Competition in October 2015. I’m involved in writing my thesis. Besides, I have already written an article which is expected to be published in the philosophical journal Ruch Filozoficzny – concerning the logic of a music work and how meaningful this work is in its interpretation.
Do you have any time for other things apart from music and philosophy?
- Short holidays – a week in October, after the tour in the United States. Some of my relatives live there in Princetown. They also have a house in Floridawith a piano so the conditions seem perfect to me. In November I’m beginning a concert in my favourite concert hall in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Then, I’m performing in Spain and Italy among others, and in December I’m going to Japan to give four concerts. Next year I’m playing in Poland.
/The daily Gazeta Wyborcza 18.09.2013 – Jacek Hawryluk/
Photo: Felix Broede / Deutsche Grammophon