The Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz, though only 30, has been on the music world’s radar for a decade, ever since he won the Chopin International Piano Competition, in Warsaw, in 2005. That victory led to a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, for which he has made five discs – mostly Chopin, but also works by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy and Szymanowski – that have won him considerable acclaim. And in 2014, he won the Gilmore Artist Award, a $300,000 prize given every four years by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a young pianist whose early work shows exceptional promise.

The Gilmore commands greater attention than competition victories these days. Like the Grawemeyer Award, for composers, or the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” fellowships, it cannot be applied for, and recipients have no idea that they are being considered. They are selected by a jury of musicians and music business executives who tour the world listening to concerts by pianists who have registered on their radar.

At Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon, Blechacz demonstrated, even more fully than on his recordings, the blend of technical command and interpretive individuality that has won him these accolades and made him one of the most exciting pianists of his generation. His recital was the first classical music offering of the season by Portland Ovations, which has brought all the Gilmore’s winners to Portland since 2002.

Blechacz opened his program with Bach’s “Italian” Concerto (BWV 971), a work that, his Chopin bona fides notwithstanding, has become something of a signature piece for him. At least one of the Gilmore jurors has singled out a performance of the score as a decisive point in Blechacz’s favor, and it was his opener when he made his Carnegie Hall debut, almost exactly a year ago. Curiously, he has not yet recorded it.

His reading on Sunday was, above all, a model of textural transparency, and though his interpretive style is nothing like Glenn Gould’s, his playing called to mind Gould’s way of letting Bach’s richly independent bass lines ring through the counterpoint, complementing but not overpowering the top lines. Blechacz’s opening Allegro was brisk and his closing Presto downright speedy, but it never seemed as if he might lose control; on the contrary, the shapeliness he brought to his phrasing and his frequent reconsideration of balances suggested that his tempos, fast as they were, were not a challenge for him. Between those driven movements, the central Andante was calm and graceful, with a singing, aria-like quality.

In his manipulation of the Bach’s internal dynamics, Blechacz drew on the full capabilities of the modern piano, but other aspects of this account – his crisp ornamentation and his steady tempos – adhered closely to Baroque style. But in the 19th century works that made up the rest of the program – Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (Op. 13) and eight Chopin pieces – his tempos were flexible and fluid.

The “Pathétique” was deeply personalized from the start, with elongated pauses adding tension and ratcheting up expectations in the opening phrases, and stark contrasts between the forceful and ruminative sections. Playing dramatically is one thing; making a piece into a coherent drama is another, and Blechacz took that route, evoking a sense of tumultuous inner struggle by using magnified dynamic and tempo gradations that seemed governed by an irrefutable internal logic.

Beethoven hints at all this in his score, but his notation leaves leeway for more straightforward readings as well, and many pianists – particularly those of the more literal-minded couple of generations that ruled the concert stage since the 1960s – take that approach. Blechacz’s imaginative, unconstrained reading carried the refreshing news that, among young players, Romanticism is alive and well.

You would expect that from his Chopin, of course. Even literalists acknowledge that Chopin’s scores demand the kind of freedom Blechacz brought to the Beethoven, and in three Waltzes (Op. 64) and three Mazurkas (Op. 56), framed by a Nocturne (Op. 62, No. 2) and a Polonaise (Op. 53), he was in his element. The sequence, compact as it was, gave him ample room to explore several corners of Chopin’s emotional palette, from the poetic introspection of the Nocturne to the freewheeling fantasy of the waltzes and the assertively nationalistic spirit of the two Polish dance forms.

In the waltzes, Blechacz’s extreme rubato emphasized the point that for Chopin these were concert pieces, not dances. Still, it was hard to resist imagining, for a moment, a Parisian ballroom packed with couples trying to waltz to Blechacz’s elastic tempos. Much the same could be said of his colorful accounts of the Mazurkas.

The most striking of Blechacz’s Chopin readings was the Polonaise, which closed the program. He played its opening section as the bright, flashy showpiece that it is. But in the middle section, marked by six fortissimo E major chords leading to a sotto voce rising figure, he used the same combination of dynamic and tempo contrasts that he brought to the opening movement of the “Pathétique,” effectively pointing up the similarities of gesture in these two very different pieces.

Blechacz offered only one encore, a Brahms Intermezzo (Op. 118, No. 2). He played it with a thoughtful gentleness, almost as a calming balm after the rigors of the Polonaise.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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