Christian Blackshaw’s electrifying Schubert at the Turner Sims
Straight backed and undemonstrative, Christian Blackshaw is a model of platform deportment. A request by him to dim the house lights ensured a special intimacy in the almost-full hall and drew us into his semi-private orbit. His focus would be of no surprise for those who have followed this 65-year-old's gradual re-emergence as an artist in recent years and one who relinquished the international limelight for nearly two decades in the 1990s in order to bring up three daughters after the death of his wife. His personal loss has been our gain and, even though he seems to focus almost exclusively on Mozart and Schubert, there are few British pianists these days who can hypnotise their audiences quite like he did on Thursday evening.
Such was Blackshaw’s engagement with Schubert’s last three piano sonatas that they could almost have been written with his temperament in mind. In his attention to detail, the myriad differences of light and shade and delicate pauses that characterise Blackshaw’s playing one might sense some divine inspiration coursing through his fingers. From the first assertive chords that open the Sonata in C minor, D.958 it was clear that Blackshaw could also deliver strong, muscular playing. Whilst this sonata is the most dramatic, energetic and outgoing of the last three, Schubert generally keeps power and passion in reserve so Blackshaw’s relatively few explosive moments were particularly welcome. What he does brilliantly is to find the emotional core of a movement and in the Adagio he fashioned wonderfully poetic tones imbuing each note with finely calibrated weight and at the same time allowing a sense of connection to achieve an unbroken line. Clarity of line and crisp articulation also inhabited the closing tarantella – a movement that seems, temporally at least, to transcend the composer’s knowledge that in September 1828 (when these sonatas were written) he had only a few weeks to live.
It is perhaps the reality and frustration of this knowledge that is built into the prophetic slow movement of the Sonata in A major, D.959 where outer sections of heart-rending melancholy embrace one of Schubert’s most turbulent outbursts. Blackshaw approached this central panel cautiously, not wanting to reach those frenzied fortissimos too soon, holding back just enough but denying none of their shock value when they occurred and reminding us in the process that Schubert was still very much a young man. Emotions in this sonata turn on a sixpence and in the Scherzo, Blackshaw delivered its glitter with infinite care, nothing overdone or superficial but, nevertheless, exciting in its dynamic and tonal control.
And so to Schubert’s haunting farewell to the piano: his Sonata in B flat, D.960. From this sublime performance it is all too apparent that Blackshaw has been immersed in this music for a long time, refining his approach to the point where few other pianists can touch him. He is that artist who can cast a spell on an audience in just a handful of notes. In the repeated note main theme of the opening movement (with those ominous bass trills) he gave us a sense of Schubert’s acceptance of his situation (or is it resignation?) and by the slow movement (now evoking tolling bells) we had virtually arrived in heaven. Here, Blackshaw’s tendency to delay the arrival of notes (verging on a mannerism) was heart-stopping and his ability to sustain a coherent thread through Schubert’s ruminations, both here and in the discursive finale, was beyond measure. At the end, one was left in no doubt about Blackshaw’s magisterial playing, his emotional range from melting expressive to high drama allied to flawless virtuosity and searching intelligence which was totally compelling from start to finish.
David Truslove, Bachtrack, 15.5.15
Schubert Sonatas: Wigmore Hall, London: 19 November 2014
From impossible delicacy to raw passion: the pianist's Schubert recital was hypnotic
How does a much-lauded performer stave off complacency? Christian Blackshaw seems to know. When the British pianist plays, he crackles with nervous energy, as if each concert were his first, generating performances of thrilling intensity. Over the past few years he has cemented his reputation for perfectionism, thanks to his obsessive attention to detail. And yet this is a man who, in the 1990s, relinquished the spotlight for almost two decades after his wife died in order to bring up his three daughters. It was our loss; few pianists nowadays hypnotise their audiences quite like he does.
That was clear from Wednesday’s Wigmore Hall recital featuring Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. They could almost have been written with Blackshaw’s musical temperament in mind, giving equal voice to his sense of elegance, and the turbulence lurking beneath his humble, reserved exterior. At moments his touch seemed impossibly delicate, only to shed a few extra grams in the very next bar. But the passages of raw passion were truly explosive, without ever outstaying their welcome.
He gave us finely judged interpretations remarkable for their long-breathed phrasing, complexity and freshness of approach. Each sonata was worth a concert in its own right, so it was a wise decision to punctuate each with an interval.
This gave us time to appreciate the depth of Blackshaw’s musical understanding, a characteristic evident from the outset. Every note of the Beethovenian Sonata in C minor, D958 was imbued with its own meaning; each phrase betrayed the sincerest emotion – always internalised, never flaunted. That’s why the stormy opening chords wrenched the gut, and why the first movement’s moments of hushed wonder were almost painfully beautiful.
The Sonata in A, D959 was similarly focused, in particular the elegiac Andantino, where the impassioned climax was rendered all the more heartbreaking for the restraint with which Blackshaw prepared it. And in the ostensibly tranquil opening to the Sonata in B flat, D960 the pianist conveyed light, darkness and shades of grey within a single phrase. One senses he has lived and breathed this music for a long time, and in his hands every note lives and breathes too.
Hannah Nepil, Financial Times, 20.11.14
Volume 2, Mozart Sonata Series, Wigmore Hall Live
Classical Music Magazine
Blackshaw's Mozart is an object lesson in clarity: outer movements are articulated with directness and poise, slow movements (sometimes very slow) seemingly painted and sung rather than merely 'played'. With raptly silent audience and warm recorded sound, this is shaping up to be the most important cycle of these treasurable works since Schiff and Uchida.
Guy Weatherall, Classical Music Magazine, 1.11.14
The Irish Times
The only time I heard English pianist Christian Blackshaw in concert, he came across as unusually comfortable in his skin. I wrote at the time that he seemed “secure in the feeling that his personal pleasure in the music would communicate readily with the audience”. Which it did. When I picture the audience for these Wigmore Hall performances of Mozart sonatas, I imagine people leaning forward slightly in order not to miss a moment of the velvet-fingered player’s almost secretive treatment of the slow movements, and relaxing for the fleetness of fast movements, easy in manner but still flecked with surprises. It would be hard to find Mozart more soft-spoken and captivating than this. The set includes the sonatas K281, K282, K283, K330 and K333.
Michael Dervan, The Irish Times, 11.12.14
Christian Blackshaw doesn’t give us pretty, bone-china Mozart, but a composer who can say serious things with a smile.
His touch in the final Presto of K283 leaves the smile in the air even as the notes vanish, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, but he allows himself all the time in the world for the opening Adagio of K282, complete with all repeats. In a big movement such as the opening Allegro of K281 he has an aristocratic disdain for the operatically derived conceit of ‘doing voices’: all the rhetoric comes from where the harmony takes him, and in K281’s central Andante amoroso that can be some quietly surprising places. That Mozart was 18 when he wrote this set of three sonatas is not only astonishing but, in Blackshaw’s hands, irrelevant.
On the second disc, K330 and K333 date from eight years later, an aeon in Mozartean terms, and Blackshaw explores the distant regions of both slow movements while never losing the pulse. The gentle wit of K330’s finale is underpinned by a muscular left-hand articulation of endless arpeggio motifs: on paper, ridiculously simple, almost banal. Recorded live, in concert – if there are any edits from this single performance, they are inaudible – the result is full of wit and wonder. The lucky few at Wigmore Hall make plenty of noise at the close of each sonata, and none during. Lucky us who can now join them.
Peter Quantrill, www.sinfinimusic.com, 4.11.14
Just as it was when welcoming the first volume, it is a joy to now listen to this second issue of Christian Blackshaw’s complete survey of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas given in Wigmore Hall and issued on its Live label, beautifully recorded (applause retained) – just like being there.
Distinguishing lightness of touch, optimum clarity and ideal tempos inform this further batch of five works. One is aware of Blackshaw’s deep study of these Sonatas, and his affection and consummate approach, illuminating the music without making points or imposing self, yet there is plenty of character and individual insight to savour.
The three consecutive K-number Sonatas fill the first disc, each of the nine movements being a gem, whether of sparkling vitality, unhurried elegance and, in the slow movements, shapely expression. Blackshaw impresses that he is an interpreter sine qua non of these pieces, which are simple yet complex, the pianist at-one with both states. His spacious unfolding of the opening Adagio of K282 is blissful and searching, and also of ‘heavenly length’ thanks to his repeating both halves. The altogether special G major Sonata (K283) receives a particularly compelling and rewarding outing.
The second disc contains two ‘bigger’ Sonatas, beginning with a majestic reading of K330, gentle and serene but with inner strength, not least in the finale. A similar easygoing spirit informs K333, relaxed yet keen. The Adagio cantabile middle movement is most beautifully articulated and the finale is as graceful as the tempo marking indicates. It is also feel-good in it cheeriness. As before, this release is enthusiastically recommended.
Colin Anderson, www.classicalsource.com, December 2014
Le Devoir, Montreal
The second volume of Mozart’s sonatas by Christian Blackshaw has emanated, like the first, from the concerts recorded at Wigmore Hall in London in 2012. Conscious of the birth of the “Blackshaw phenomenon”, Wigmore are carefully distilling them in order to create a sense of suspense.
Like in volume 1, this new album surpassed our greatest hopes. The control and poetic nature that results in the mastery of this musical production is unreal, especially as we know they are the recordings of concerts without retouching. Last summer in Orford, Blackshaw showed that this is indeed “for real”. He came to perform the Sonatas D. 958, 959 and 960 by Schubert. I imagine that he will come to Quebec one day…
Volume 2 of Mozart by Blackshaw juxtaposes the often neglected sonatas (K. 281, 282 and 283) and two monumental sonatas (K. 330 and 333). Like in Volume 1, the “small sonatas” become bigger than nature. The interpretative genius comes into every turn of phrase: the way the first note is played in the 1st movement of the sonata K. 283 or the way in which the six repetitions of the same note in the K. 281 theme are phrased… How best to illustrate the transformative art of eloquent phrases from the percussive hammer on the string?
Like in the first album, the second CD contains the great sonatas. And, again, the slow movements are pure moments of eternity, without gravity, where time disappears completely. After Ivan Moravec I had never known a magician of the piano such as this.
Christophe Huss [trans.], Classics Today France, 29.11.14
The Sunday Times
Simple they might seem on their surface, but Mozart’s piano sonatas make demands of poise, control and human insight unlike any other body of work. In the second of what will be a four-volume collection, Christian Blackshaw gives beautifully shaped, sparkling, aching accounts...every little turn full of import.
Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times, 28.9.14
Volume 1, Mozart Sonata Series, Wigmore Hall Live
The first four Ws (Who, What, Where, When) seemed clear-cut: Christian Blackshaw plays Mozart sonatas at Wigmore Hall in 2012. But the last W, ‘Why’, eluded me at first. After all, do we really need another Mozart cycle, and from a relatively unknown pianist in his sixties? In any event, I dutifully loaded in the CDs; and within half a minute Blackshaw’s mindful yet spontaneous virtuosity, pinpointed sense of character and utterly alive music-making completely disarmed my scepticism. His light touch and unpredictable yet never contrived-sounding accents in the outer movements of the C major Sonata (K279) are akin to a master actor who knows how to throw away a good line. Listen to the Adagio of the F major (K280), and how Blackshaw balances imitative phrases between one hand and the other to ravishing, three-dimensional effect, or how Mozart’s witty, ingenious deployment of keyboard registers in the Presto hit home. And let’s not forget Blackshaw’s gorgeous tone and split-second timing of the embellishments in the Rondeau of the D major Sonata (K311).
He takes the finale of the A minor (K310) at an optimistic clip, yet the control of voicing and cannily scaled dynamics rivet your attention in every bar. Of course, I wouldn’t be a true Gramophone critic if I didn’t find one nit to pick, so to speak, and that concerns Blackshaw slightly holding back in the first movement of the B flat Sonata (K570). But he compensates by playing up the Allegretto’s syncopations through discreetly varied articulations and accents. The recording quality reasonably mirrors one’s perspective of Wigmore Hall’s stage from a close-up audience seat. Now to answer my earlier question: we need Vol 2.
Jed Distler, Gramophone Magazine, 5.12.13
BBC Music Magazine
Christian Blackshaw's Mozart Piano Sonata Series at Wigmore Hall garnered a unanimously positive response from London's critics. So it seems entirely appropriate that these performances should now be made available to a wider audience. Certainly the first volume proves to be a completely engaging experience. Although Blackshaw's playing operates within a deliberately restricted dynamic range, perhaps acknowledging the gentler sonorities of the early keyboard for which these works were originally written, the sound he extracts from the modern piano is subtle and astonishingly varied. In the slow movements, Blackshaw's velvety tone and fluid control of rubato perfectly encapsulate the intimacy and longing of Mozart's cantabile melodies. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, his articulation in the fast outer movements have razor-sharp clarity as well as great energy and exuberance.
Without doubt, the most impressive feature of Blackshaw's interpretations is the way in which he varies the character of these essentially didactic pieces. In the first disc, for example, it's instructive to compare his approach in the opening movements of the C major (K279), F major (K280) and D major (K311) Sonatas. Although each work shares common stylistic fingerprints, Blackshaw never takes these gestures for granted, making us listen afresh to every nuance and sharing with us his delight at the composer's unexpected twists and turns of harmony. Just as impressive is the British pianist's superbly dramatic account of the A minor Sonata (K310). The outer movements are bold and fiery but without any harshness of tone, while Blackshaw is magical and wistful melancholy of the central Andante cantabile movement.
Erik Levi, BBC Music Magazine, Christmas 2013
Classics Today France
DISC OF THE MONTH 10/10, DECEMBER 2013
Stunning! But who is this 64 year old pianist that plays Mozart with his sense of Ivan Moravec, poetry Sergio Fiorentino and light escapes Mieczyslaw Horszowski?
Christian Blackshaw lives in England, where he is known to a few specialists. He was almost withdrawn after the death of his wife in 1990 with three children to feed. Since 2009, he made a comeback, driven by some of the faithful, including Simon Rattle, who made a commitment to the Berlin Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev, who invited him to play Mozart in St. Petersburg, where Christian Blackshaw studied for a time.
For the rest, a major influence is that of Clifford Curzon, his teacher. It is not without thinking about it, too (remember, "the" Mozart 27th Concerto under the baton of Britten). Christian Blackshaw is shy, but on stage (these discs are recorded live) he celebrates Mozart's bright asceticism.
If you want to have an idea what kind of miracles contained in this disc, go to track 6, disc 1 and listen to the intensity of the music Blackshaw in the Adagio of the Sonata K. 280 which was considered minor. And I 'm not telling you what happens in the Sonata in B flat major K 570: time is literally suspended. This K. 570 ( Final ... what Moravec level, I tell you) makes us dream to hear one day D. 960 Schubert with a magician poet of this calibre. And the K. 310! History.
I did not even want to say more. Christian Blackshaw a snook at Pinup and narcissus in the art of touch keyboard and all the wire-pullers of music marketing. He is the sexagenarian, the revelation of the decade!
Christophe Huss [trans.], Classics Today France, December 2013
Christian Blackshaw tackles the composer’s 18 piano sonatas with such insight, panache and dedication
Not since Lili Kraus more than half a century ago has a pianist tackled Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas with such insight, panache and dedication. Blackshaw’s recent four-concert cycle at Wigmore Hall was a landmark in what remains an under-appreciated corner of Mozart’s oeuvre, and it is heartening to find these first CDs re-invoking and re-creating the sense of discovery those performances engendered.
This is no dry exploration of classical form, least of all in the first two sonatas. The luminous tone Blackshaw draws from the keys is a wonder in itself, and such is the kaleidoscope of feeling he uncovers in the composer’s decorative forms – joy, sadness, contemplation, exhilaration – that one easily takes the pianist’s technique for granted, so unassumingly has he clothed it in his warm and deft musicianship. Already, in the andante middle movement of the first sonata, we hear Blackshaw adding the subtlest variations of tone and emphasis to the music’s repeated motifs, while the finale has laughter, wit, temperament – and fabulous fluency. To the adagio of the second sonata he brings a proto-Beethovenian blend of poise and depth, to the eighth’s con espressione reflections an unaffected elegance. The ninth and seventeenth sonatas profit no less from Blackshaw’s chaste exploration of the music’s expressive palette. What these performances convey above all is an intelligence that has lived long enough with Mozart’s solo piano music to illuminate it richly for 21st-century ears.
Andrew Clark, Financial Times, 20.9.13
The Sunday Times
Wigmore Hall's label is issuing a four-volume cycle of Mozart's sonatas as recently performed there by this remarkable artist. The first double album contains five, arranged for musical satisfaction rather than chronology, though beginning with No 1 in C and No 2 in F, whose exquisitely played adagio points to the transcendent beauty of the B flat No 17's adagio on disc two. One could hardly ask for deeper accounts of the slow movements of these works, or, indeed, a more feeling and tonally immaculate articulation of any part of them. The tragic A minor drive of the Ninth Sonata's outer movements is captivating.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, 22.9.13
The Irish Times
Lots of pianists give Mozart’s piano sonatas the kid gloves treatment. They want to respect the lighter tonal character of the instruments of Mozart’s time and avoid projecting Beethovenian performance characteristics back onto earlier music. But it’s hard to achieve all of this on a 21st-century piano without sounding effete. The music, which can seem so self-evident on the page, is notoriously elusive in performance. Christian Blackshaw plays with a freedom that seems to cast all these difficulties aside. He manoeuvres the music with something of the grace and unpredictability of a bird in flight. But yet the playing lacks nothing in expressive weight. Remarkable. This first volume includes the Sonatas in C, K279, in F, K280, in D, K311, in B flat, K570 and in A minor, K310.
Michael Dervan, The Irish Times, 20.9.13
With playing of great poise and refinement, and with beautifully clear, warm recorded sound, this first release in a projected complete cycle makes the strongest possible impression. Employing a wide dynamic and tonal range, Blackshaw's view is affectionately romantic, especially in the slow movements; this is wonderful playing, and the remaining three releases have a great deal to live up to.
Guy Weatherall, Classical Music Magazine, 20.9.13
...this is an impressive beginning to what could become a major event, a set of recordings of this repertoire to rank with Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida.
Colin Anderson, www.classicalsource.com, September 2013
From the early C major K.279’s playful and refreshingly accented Allegro to the A minor K. 310’s unusually brisk and well gauged Presto finale, Christian Blackshaw’s refined yet spontaneous-sounding pianism and musicianship consistently enliven Mozart’s keyboard writing. You’ll notice the pianist’s subtle emphasis of the B-flat K. 570 Allegretto’s syncopated phrasings through careful dynamic gradations and varied articulations that never draw attention to themselves. In addition, you’ll hear how Blackshaw’s ideally fluid tempos for the F major K. 280 and D major K. 311 slow movements lend themselves to an easy give and take between left hand accompaniments and right hand melodies. What is more, Blackshaw illuminates changes of texture and pungent harmonic felicities through tone color rather than rubato, although his firmly centered rhythm is anything but metronomic.
If the sonics don’t match the ample warmth and close-up detail typical of the best studio-derived Mozart cycles, the microphones nevertheless capture a realistic perspective between the stage and a choice Wigmore Hall seat. For the record, Blackshaw observes some but not all of the repeats. A lovely release, and I look forward to this cycle’s future volumes.
Artistic Quality: 10 / Sound Quality: 9
Jed Distler, www.classicstoday.com, 20.9.13
Le Devoir, Montreal
Blackshaw-Mozart: grief and grace
All those who have engaged in photography would remember its pre digital days of the gelatine silver process when, to take a photograph in low lighting required that one pushes the sensitivity of a film from 400ISO to 1600 ISO resulting in grainy images with little definition. Nowadays, some digital sensors are so sensitive that to take photographs at 6400 SO poses no such problem. Any philistine can perceive the difference: these working contraptions seem to literally “create light” and search out in images details which a normal human eye would not detect.
It is this very analogy which sprang to mind while listening to Christian Blackshaw play four Mozart sonatas on Saturday at Orford. In answer to question number 1: yes, Christian Blackshaw live (not on CD) is not only an exceptional artist but also, from a technical point of view, a very solid pianist too. As to question number 2: what is it that makes him so special? This is where the analogy with photography comes in. Like these sensors which recreate light, Blackshaw literally “searches out the music” in every nook and cranny, in that trill, in that intersection of voice, of ornamentation and of alleviating of the sound; not unlike an archaeologist seeking to uncover a “lost city”, he ploughs deep into modulations (changes in modality).
This is where transcendence begins leading to revelation: To Mozart, the 4 sonatas represent his intimate laboratory. This is where he makes his grief well up and it is also where he experiments. To me, the startling revelation of this concert was the slow movement of Sonata K.533, the modulations of which, beneath Blackshaw’s fingers and lit up by his spirit, actually anticipate Beethoven’s universe of the last quartets. Who would have believed it?
In the great passage in minor key of the Andante cantabile in the K.330 sonata, Blackshaw uncovers a gaping wound upon which will come and rest, for a slight moment only, that healing , a final “allegro” (joyous) movement of infinite grace.
By playing in semi darkness, Blackshaw compels the spectator to concentrate while an entire musical edifice is being erected, conducted as if it were a ceremonial. The pianist makes scarce use of the pedal, and when he does use it, in particular in the K.457 sonata, it is to shoot out exceptional light rays. He has pushed the Art Centre’s Yamaha beyond its extreme limits. One can imagine what this recital would have been, had it been played on the Steinway of Hamburg’s Symphonic House.
This was a concert which was arduous (tough/harrowing) and demanded immense focus and attention on the part of an exemplary audience which proved itself to be worthy of receiving this message and those intimate confidences which, at times, verged on despair. This message portrays a Mozart who is poles apart from the one portrayed in Amadeus the film where he is depicted as a libidinous, quasi imbecile buffoon.
Christophe Huss [trans.], Le Devoir [Montreal], 28.7.14
Le Journal de Montreal
On a beautiful Saturday on July 26th, at the Orford festival, should we, once again, quote Fats Waller, the pianist who, when introducing giant Art Tatum the giant, says: “God is in the House”?
What calls for this semi religious query is our wonder at what British pianist Christian Blackshaw has made out of Mozart’s sonatas (a very small part of these only): a magical enchantment which confines simple mortals to the Gods of Olympus. In Gilles- Lefebvre’s Concert hall, filled to the brim, dim lights incite us to await in silent contemplation. There he comes in, wholly dressed in black, wearing no superfluous artifice and settles in to give a demanding concert of great intricacy as these sonatas are and still remain a course of a many hurdles to overcome.
As the great pianist Arthur Schnabel would say: “Sonatas? Too easy for amateurs, too difficult for professionals”. We shall not enter this discussion which is best left to specialists, instead, we shall focus on style and what a style that of Blackshaw's….Discreet, affable even, serene to the extreme, he did not “deliver” a piano lesson, for he was on another plane. Blackshaw’s style is smooth, weightless; his finger touch crystal clear, his play far from mechanical.Listening with our eyes shut, we were, so to speak, almost coaxing Mozart’s spirit out of his safe hideout.
Sitting beside me was our friend Anthony Rosankovic who, more knowledgeable than most, was nodding his head to and fro, feeding me with “pianistic” comments such as: “were this piece to have been played on a Steinway or a Fazzioli, the sound would have felt warm” and highlighting the artist’s immense technical ability and depth of spirit; in short, he was spell bound.
When, nearing the end,Blackshaw came to play sonata no 14 in C minor, a moment of ecstasy was reached. Having somewhat “let go of his reticence and reserve”, he released a surge of merged shadows and feverish jubilation- all delivered with flawless rhythm!
Triple applauses; paradise was within reach…Alleluia.
Christophe Rodriguez [trans.], Le Journal de Montreal, 27.7.14
International Piano Series: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London: 26 February 2013
Christian Blackshaw gave up his international career as a concert pianist when he devoted himself to bringing up his young family after his wife died. That was some twenty years ago, when he was in his early forties. He started rebuilding his career towards the end of 2009 with a Mozart Sonata cycle that he has recently completed. The clarity, insight and abundant musical intelligence he brought to this slightly ‘Cinderella’ area of the piano repertoire saturated the more mainstream, romantic works he played in this International Piano Series recital.
If there is such a thing as robust refinement, Christian Blackshaw has it in spades. There is a rigour to his playing, tempered by some of the most eloquent and inward playing I’ve heard from the current IPS roll-call of (predominantly young) pianists. Like Clifford Curzon, with whom he studied, Blackshaw has a range of touches that can produce ever-quieter layers of tone and variety of colour. It’s the sort of approach, coupled with his preference for performing with the lighting turned down very low Richter-style, which undemonstratively clears a path into the music. I feared briefly that his way might be too overwrought and sophisticated for the supposedly artless charm of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, but such reflection on childhood fantasy, games, memories and the need for security made itself felt in a reading played almost to and for himself. Blackshaw was acutely alive to the childlike but huge significance of each piece, and after the exquisitely balanced irresolution of ‘Träumerei’ and the lingering return to the real world in ‘The poet speaks’, you were left in no doubt that this is music for grown-ups.
There was a similar tug to the world of the subconscious in Blackshaw’s powerful performance of Schubert’s late A major Piano Sonata. The ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy-like confidence of the opening of the first movement needed the exposition repeat to assert itself, and the slight tweak of anxiety at the turn into the development, in Blackshaw’s carefully plotted overview, was the first uneasy hint of the full-blown drama that erupted like a psychotic episode in the slow movement. There was a soul-bearing imagination at work here, and the trauma leaked into the tranquiliser effect of the rest of the Andantino and the brittle scherzo. In every sense, this was a big performance, self-effacingly virtuosic and full of detail (aided by a light foot on the sustaining pedal), that did full justice to the Sonata’s stature.
Blackshaw’s virtuosity was more overt in Schumann’s Études symphoniques. These terrifyingly demanding Variations can get lost in their dense textures, but, even though he understandably looked rather drained at the end, Blackshaw kept the sound impressively clear, without a hint of the hectoring quality that can easily take over in this work. The articulation of Blackshaw’s playing, especially in the staccato passages Schumann seemed so fond of, was phenomenal, and I particularly admired the way he cleared the air for the release into the surging finale with a perception that never lost sight of its seismic climax.
Peter Reed, www.classicalsource.com, 26.2.13
Mozart Sonata Series: Wigmore Hall, London: January 2012 - January 2013
The pianist brought his momentous journey through Mozart’s sonatas to a rapturous ending
Mozart’s piano sonata in A K.331 begins with a nursery rhyme-type theme which even those immune to classical music might recognise. On it is based an elaborate set of variations that only a mind of Mozart’s creative ingenuity could sustain. The challenge facing the interpreter is to carry the music through these quasi-repetitious elaborations without letting it sound banal. It is a measure of Christian Blackshaw’s complete identification with this strand of Mozart’s genius that these Andante grazioso variations – like so much else in Blackshaw’s recital, the last of his widely toured Mozart sonata cycle – had an intensity and concentration that generated unstoppable momentum.
Inherited wisdom tells us that Mozart’s 18 sonatas are either the product of an infant prodigy’s improvisatory whirls or a set of pedagogical exercises inhibited by classical form. More than half a century ago the great Lili Kraus told us otherwise. Now, in an equally sui generis bolt from the blue, Blackshaw has done something similar.
While not exactly turning Mozart into a Sturm und Drang composer, he showed in Saturday’s recital that the sonatas’ intricately worked-out forms and deceptively simple melodies are suffused with temperament and feeling. On that score alone, this series represents a landmark in London’s appreciation of this music.
The evening began with Sonata No. 7 in C K.309, the outer movements of which Blackshaw took at a fair lick, ratcheting up the drama while paying due honour to Mozart’s extrovert flourishes and finely sculpted touches. Then, in the superficially facile Andante, he found unexpected depths and moods. After K.331’s opening variations came a surprisingly fibrous Minuet and a finale that drove home the brazen boldness of Mozart’s Turkish effects.
The second half brought two late sonatas. Blackshaw took in hand the elaborate arguments of K.533 in F with fatherly patience, making even the intricate figurations of the finale seem charged with light. If the opening movement of the very last sonata, K.576, sounded a little too fast and furious, the Adagio made amends: Blackshaw imbued its melancholic strain with tragic grandeur, and the closing Allegretto had both wit and wisdom – a rapturous ending to a momentous journey.
Andrew Clark, Financial Times, 7.1.13
There are plenty of good concerts at any time of year in London, but by definition the exceptional happens as rarely here as in any other city. And Christian Blackshaw’s recital, the first of four he is devoting to Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas, was exceptional – both for the quality and integrity of his playing and for the amount he revealed about Mozart’s often underestimated music for solo piano.
We have become so accustomed to pianists of the CD and DVD generation trying to impress with their facility and camera-friendly aura that it comes as a shock to encounter an artist of Blackshaw’s maturity and uncompromising spirit. Maybe the barometer of taste is finally swinging back in favour of experience. You can tell Blackshaw has lived with the music and its creative world for a long time. It flows from every note he plays, every joined-up phrase, every seamless cantilena – despite (or maybe because of) the surprises he springs by investing this or that motif with new meaning, by turning the music in on itself with the gentlest touch, or using a fermata to expressive effect. The luminous tone he draws from the keys is a wonder in itself, and such is the kaleidoscope of feeling he uncovers in Mozart’s apparently innocent decorative exercises that one easily takes his technique for granted, so unassumingly has he clothed it in his warm and deft musicianship.
He began at the beginning, sweeping away any notion that the first two sonatas might be Mozart Lite. There was elegance, joy and improvisational whimsy in the outer movements – Blackshaw always sets the decorative in the context of the melodic – but the slow movements were the heart of the matter: the tragic, transcendental intensity of Sonata No 2 really caught the breath. His bravura despatch came to the fore in No 8, his crystalline articulation in No 17. Although the recital’s second half never quite scaled the heights of the first, it ended powerfully with a performance of No 9 that found, in Mozart’s obsessive repetitions, a musical language teetering on the brink of despair.
Andrew Clark, Financial Times, 9.1.12
Mozart/Schubert/Schumann: Wigmore Hall, London - July 2011
Concert pianism these days is a pretty brash affair, punctuated every few months by frenzies over the latest youthful discovery. Woe betide the player who doesn't develop a marketable image, or a saleable line of chat, and whose only ambition is to be a conduit for the music. One such player is Christian Blackshaw, who laid the foundations of his art by becoming the first British pianist to enrol at the Leningrad conservatoire, and by studying under Clifford Curzon and absorbing that peerless artist's ability to make every note sing. Now in his early sixties, Blackshaw has become the unobtrusive touchstone for a kind of pianism that makes no headlines, but holds listeners enthralled.
Mozart's sonatas are generally regarded - and often played - as though they were humble precursors to the much grander sonatas of Beethoven: Blackshaw gave the lie to that with a fascinating account of the late Sonata in F K 533. He brought an exuberant muscularity to the intricate counterpoint of the first movement, and an operatic expressiveness to the dreamy second movement with its startling harmonic explorations. By this time, we were ready to pay close attention to the simple rondo out of which the work had sprung, and its central cadenza came clothed in royal purple.
Then he launched into the Schubert sonata that Daniel Barenboim had played on the same piano a few weeks before, and the contrast could not have been greater. Written shortly before the composer's death, the Sonata in C minor D 958 owes a superficial debt to Beethoven, but Barenboim played it as though it actually was Beethoven.
Blackshaw's performance was a revelation. The shading of the echoes in the first movement was marvellously subtle, with the architecture unusually clear. Using slow and ruminative tempos, Blackshaw let the music speak with all its hints and hesitations.
Schumann's Fantasy in C Opus 17, which many pianists take as a licence for flashy display, was another revelation: Blackshaw found unexpected poetry in it at every turn. There were moments when it put one in mind of Liszt, but at no point did Blackshaw betray Schumann's intensely personal voice; the wide-eyed wonder of the conclusion left a very deep silence. No encore, because anything more would have broken the spell: finally, joyful pandemonium.
Michael Church, The Independent, 15.7.11
Classical propriety tussled with romantic excess in this carefully considered programme that combined Schubert’s Piano Sonata in C minor, D958 and Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op 17 with Mozart’s composite Piano Sonata in F K533/494. The same friction was evident in Christian Blackshaw’s performance. Whether plumbing the depths of despair in the Schumann or weaving threads of pure silk in the Mozart, at no point did Blackshaw abandon his characteristic tendency towards understatement.
And that was part of the appeal. For all his profound musicality, this pianist is not given to spoon-feeding his audience. There is no grand gesture in Blackshaw’s playing; no affectation; no in-your-face artifice. But there is a quiet, glowing intensity that, if you are willing to listen out for it, offers far greater rewards.
Such was the case in his reading of the Mozart sonata – a well-judged antecedent to the Mozart Piano Sonata Cycle he will perform at Wigmore Hall next season. While cut-glass textures, lilting melodies and featherweight finger work were all firmly in place, the main allure of Blackshaw’s interpretation lay in the ability to say so much while betraying so little. An unexpected pianissimo; the slightest of pauses: that’s all it took to make this speak. His performance lent fresh character not only to each note but to the gaps in between.
Some might have wondered whether Blackshaw’s sense of restraint would prove less of an asset with the Schubert. But the Sonata in C minor, which harnesses a sense of loneliness and alienation, is well-suited to Blackshaw’s introspective approach. His account combined the odd bittersweet indulgence with a judicious sense of pacing, particularly in the final movement where Blackshaw ramped up the tension with the main theme’s every reappearance. But the most propulsive playing came in Schumann’s highly Beethovenian Fantasy in C. Here Blackshaw matched technical athleticism with emotional agility, floating lightly into the delicate opening of the third movement after the storming conclusion to the second. The finale, on the other hand, was a marathon of controlled explosions, rendered all the more thrilling by the unseen passion shimmering beneath Blackshaw’s shy, self-possessed exterior.
Hannah Nepil, Financial Times, 15.7.11
Christian Blackshaw, Mozart Sonata Cycle – St. George’s Bristol, Autumn 2009
Back in Bristol, one of the finest Mozart recitals I’ve heard in years – by Christian Blackshaw...
Oliver Condy, BBC Music Magazine, December 2009
Mozart Piano Concerto No 24: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, March 2006
BSO marks Mozart's 250th birthday in style
Conductor Jonathan Carney applied a genuinely elegant touch at every turn. In Mozart's piano concerto, No. 24 in C minor, Carney had a superior soloist. Christian Blackshaw, who made his BSO debut in 2003 with another Mozart concerto, should be much better known.
Just as he demonstrated in that first appearance, Blackshaw revealed here an uncommon ability to evoke the spirit of the incomprehensibly gifted composer, using a disarmingly refined tone, perfectly judged dynamic accents and, above all, phrasing that had the personal, free-flowing quality of spontaneous song. Carney ensured that the pianist received fully expressive support from the orchestra.
Blackshaw's playing simply defines class and classical.
Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun, 26.3.06
...a sense of excitement and daring. His ability to coax an almost vocal legato from his instrument gave the second movement the kind of sunny and serene sense of repose that makes a performance memorable.
The Washington Post, 25.3.06