London Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden – Shostakovich 8 – Rafał Blechacz plays Chopin

Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Rafał Blechacz (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 26 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Rafał BlechaczApparently quite a few people asked for refunds when they discovered that Maria João Pires had withdrawn from this concert. That’s their loss, because they missed an outstanding performance of the Chopin from the 26-year-old Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz. We and the LPO were lucky to get him. Blechacz has been developing an impressive career since he swept the board at the 2005 Chopin Competition, and you can hear why he’s being spoken of in the same breath as his fellow Pole, Krystian Zimerman – although he’s yet to assume the latter’s aristocratic poise and personality.

The elements that made the Chopin such a pleasure were his tactful assertion of ‘soloist’s rights’ – this is not a concerto for first among equals – the definition of his playing and the clarity of his wide-ranging sound. On the back of these, other aspects of his impressive, non-showy technique and a natural, pragmatic musicianship fell into place – an unmannered feel for rubato, a tensile litheness powering the velvety lyricism and irrepressible, fluid decorations, and an infectious generosity of style and personality. He was very impressive, as was Jaap van Zweden in infusing the conventional orchestration with an unusual degree of breadth and colour. Blechacz’s encore, Chopin’s last, unfinished Mazurka, was a delight.

Jaap van Zweden. Photograph: IMG ArtistsThe last time I heard Jaap van Zweden was at this year’s Proms, in another Eighth Symphony in C minor – Bruckner’s – one of those yardstick performances that don’t often come your way. This Shostakovich Eighth was easily in that league. Van Zweden’s direction of this charged, grief-stricken war music was electrifyingly intense, and produced some terrifyingly intense playing from the LPO, magnificently on the top of its form. Despite Van Zweden’s non-indulgent speeds – the symphony came in at just over an hour, compared to nearly 70 minutes of some others – the scale was epic and almost overwhelmed with weight. The three great climaxes weren’t surprising – you could hear them gathering like dark stars a mile off – but they were still overwhelmingly tragic, especially in the first movement with its ensuing, ghostly reaction.

Van Zweden was magnetic in this movement, giving all the contrasting elements a bleak, hopeless coherence, and the shrill, cartoon-like brutality of the two succeeding march-like scherzos may have offered a change of tempo but only defined the darkness, the second parading its hollow, pointless energy like a strait-jacketed Boléro. The Passacaglia was played out of a sense of exhaustion rather than relief, and the hint of C major warmth giving scant comfort to the start of the finale sounded, as it should, equivocal, not so much a goal, but simply because there is nowhere else to go.

This was music-making that gripped from the start, with Jaap van Zweden guiding us through the seething orchestral detail with an unfailingly accurate, imaginative ear, the LPO delivering this burden of anguish with playing of unflinching intensity.

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