Swooning, posing and visually emoting are as common among classical soloists as among power balladeers on “The Voice.”
That is why, in terms of demeanor, the 31-year-old Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz seems something of a throwback.
Tall, lean and patrician, he walked to the piano at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on Saturday evening with the restrained elegance of a young nobleman to play Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, one of the most technically challenging in the repertoire. His natural poise and reserve seemed reflected in his approach to the seething opening movement of the concerto.
After a fiery introduction fashioned by conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, Blechacz’s entry was crystalline in tonal quality, pouring a calming oil on the troubled waters of Brahm’s turbulent orchestral writing.
His unraveling of the gloriously lyrical melody that comes later had a touch of restraint, but it also felt unforced and inevitable.
Blechacz doesn’t do crude highlighting or heavy underlining of important phrases: He trusts the natural expressiveness of the music, and the intelligence of his listeners.
His playing in the slow movement had a refined, opalescent quality, matched by the orchestra’s breath-catchingly hushed string playing, pared away to virtually nothing at key points under Vänskä’s watchful direction.
A buoyant, sparkling account of the finale showed that stamina isn’t an issue for the young Polish pianist. His trilling was still as energized and accurate in the closing measures as 40 minutes before.
The ovation was, deservedly, prolonged and generous. There were no air kisses or body hugs from Blechacz, however. There was a formal bow or two, a hint of a smile, and then he was headed for rest and recuperation.
After the intermission came Stravinsky’s great ballet score “The Rite of Spring,” as taxing for orchestral players as Brahms’s First Concerto is for pianists.
An early bassoon wobble and some less than confident solos notwithstanding, Vänskä built a formidable head of steam in “The Adoration of the Earth,” part one of Stravinsky’s diptych structure.
Fearless, explosive work from the timpani and percussion section stood out, as did the trenchant, buzzing contributions of the orchestra’s excellent double bassists.
By comparison, part two (“The Sacrifice”) dragged a little initially, the shrouded mistiness of Stravinsky’s wonderfully evocative orchestration hanging a little heavily over the Russian landscape where the ballet’s action happens.
Stravinsky once wrote of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge for string quartet that it is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” The same words apply to “The Rite of Spring.” And this urgent, at times electrifying performance was a sharp reminder of the piece’s undiminished power.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.