NPR

Rafal Blechacz's Single-Minded Chopin

Young musicians heading into big-time competitions, listen up!

The competition's handlers will ask you to do interviews (with people like me, frankly), to talk about how you feel, what you hope to achieve, how you're handling the pressure. My advice is to follow the "recluse" strategy adopted by the young Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz. When he entered the 2005 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, at age 20, he knew a good result could lead to a professional career. So before and during the competition, Blechacz declined all interviews. He didn't watch TV and avoided all print reviews. He didn't even listen to his fellow competitors. He kept his head down, and focused on what he loves: music by Chopin.

"I wanted to be concentrated only on my repertoire, on my interpretations," he told me during this studio performance.

Blechacz's self-contained approach led to an unprecedented result at what may be the most exacting of all music competitions. Twice in recent memory, the Chopin Competition has declined to award a first prize, saying no one played well enough. Blechacz won every possible prize in 2005: first prizes for Polonaises, Concertos, Mazurkas and Sonatas. And the overall First Prize. To emphasize his dominance, the competition declined to give a second prize.

Five years on, Blechacz still has that single-minded pursuit of clarity and brilliance at the keyboard. He lavishes attention on the finest details: Listen to the way he brings out hidden inner voices from Chopin's Mazurka Op. 50, No. 2, using his thumbs to draw our attention to a melody that's often lost. (And he demonstrates this beautifully, about 17 minutes into our conversation.)

And when I asked if he might play some Mozart to finish our session, he jumped at the chance, saying "Yes, because Chopin loved Mozart!"

Fred Child hosts the nationally broadcast classical music program, 'Performance Today.'

Copyright 2014 American Public Media. To see more, visit http://americanpublicmedia.publicradio.org.

Most Popular