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Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz was just 20 years old when he swept all five top prizes at the 2005 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. His domination was so thorough the judges declined to award a runner-up.
But with piano competitions, after the ceremonies wrap up and the hubbub dies down, only a few winners move ahead to what might be called greatness while others slip into relative obscurity. Van Cliburn, Radu Lupu and Vladimir Ashkenazy all took home top honors at big competitions. But so did Ralph Votapek, Simone Pedroni and Vladimir Krainev — not exactly household names.
That's about the same age Polish composer Szymanowski was in the first decade of the 20th century, when he wrote his Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor and the Piano Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 8.
The sonata, a terrific 25-minute piece, was an ear-opening discovery for me and should be better known. Its flamboyant opening Allegro, which Blechacz nails with ecstatic precision, harks back to Chopin's opener for his own B minor Sonata. The following Adagio is beautifully quilted with restrained emotion, giving way to a stormy midsection. A light, classically-tinged Minuet proves a surprising buffer to the imposing final movement which, after a foreboding introduction, segues into a virtuosic triple fugue. Blechacz plays it all with an uncanny combination of confidence and abandon. As in his previous Chopin recordings, the music pours out naturally, with unmannered dexterity.
Like the Szymanowski works that close the album, the three Debussy pieces that open it date from the dawn of the 20th century. With clean and fluid articulation, Blechacz doesn't overplay the whole-tone harmonies woven into the suite Pour le piano. Blechacz pounces on the Prelude with uncommon verve; the Sarabande, by contrast, is slightly veiled. Although composed just two years later, Estampes inhabits a very different world. Here's the exotic Debussy, flavoring his music with Indonesian gamelan in "Pagodes" and with hints of smoke and castanets in "La Soirée dans Grenade." Refreshingly, this isn't heavily pedaled, overly perfumed Debussy. It's unforced and evocative. L'Isle joyeuse begins with inquisitive trills and ends in a blaze of fireworks.
With this smartly programmed, brilliantly played document of the piano at the opening of the 20th century, Blechacz once again proves he's a musician living up to that awards sweep in Warsaw.