Two young pianists just entering their thirties gave two very different recitals today. Both have talent in abundance, rock solid technique, and enough maturity to make their own distinct mark on well-trodden repertoire. Both can conjure a full range of colours and sonorities from the instrument and are able to engage audiences with the force of their playing. Neither is a showman or a prodigy but both, I confidently predict, will endure and leave their imprint on the precarious and overcrowded milieu of international classical pianism
13 January 2015 Chichester Cathedral: Michael McHale
When it comes to producing virtuosi, Ulster punches well above its weight pace James Galway, Barry Douglas, Michael Collins to name but three. There is no doubt that the name of Michael McHale will in time be added to that pantheon. One of the many good things about the Chichester Cathedral Lunchtime Concerts is that performers often return year after year allowing us to witness their development as artists; often, sadly, to the point where full diaries and rising fees preclude any further appearances. In the five years since McHale made his first appearance at the Cathedral his international concert career has developed quickly – and deservedly so. The main fare in this recital was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which McHale delivered with a ravishing array of textures and colours. This was a reading of great heft, no more so than in the monumental Great Gate of Kiev where McHale made full use of the building’s acoustic and gave the machine-made Yamaha (a disgrace in a venue of this importance) probably the greatest workout it has ever experienced.
13 January 2015 Turner Sims: Rafael Blechaz
No such problems at Southampton University’s Turner Sims Concert Hall where pianists can choose between a Steinway Model D or a Fazioli. Rafael Blechaz eschewed the latter for a concert of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. Nice to hear a Mozart sonata (in this case the D Major K311), and the Beethoven Pathétique zinged along with plenty of fizz (even the second movement where Beethoven’s greatest hit tune might have been allowed a little more room to breathe); but it was the Chopin after the break that, let’s face it, we were all there for. Much has been written and said about this young Pole who carried off all five first prizes at the 15th International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, not least by one of the judges John O’Conor who is reputed to have said: "He is one of the greatest artists I have had a chance to hear in my entire life".
If one believed in re-incarnation one might be forgiven for imagining that the great Frederick Chopin had returned. Blachez is slight in stature and has a pale and interesting look. You would expect a Pole to have a great affinity for the music of his fellow countryman. But this is more than that. It is no flight of fancy to say that this is close to what the composer himself would have sounded like at the keyboard. A selection of exquisitely crafted mazurkas and waltzes led to the grand finale: the extraordinary Polonaise in F sharp minor (Op 44). This is a piece which raises Chopin far above the ranks of the salon composers and places him amongst the greatest composers of all time. It is a piece which pushes the boundaries way beyond the harmonic and structural norms of the time. It is rich in polyphonic writing, atonalism and structural experimentation. There is a passage mid-way in the piece (see below) which the same motif is repeated twenty times with just the tiniest variations which is pure Philip Glass or John Adams.
I’m not sure whether the standing ovation was for Blechaz or Chopin. Probably a bit of both. When it comes to Chopin, John O’Conor may well be right. As for the broader repertoire, we must wait to see how things develop.