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
The Daily Telegraph
Which composers can sustain an entire piano recital by themselves? Sometimes we’re not sure whether the composer has the necessary range and depth. With Mozart, the answer is a given, so the focus shifts to us. Can we really take two hours of perfection without the creeping feeling that the composer really does live on a higher plane, where we don’t belong?
The answer depends on the pianist. Play Mozart too delicately, and his humour and passion are muted; play him roughly and his elegance and joie de vivre disappear.
There’s an added difficulty in that Mozart’s radiance is often wrapped in the most banal, conventional material. One of the great things aboutChristian Blackshaw’s series of Mozart sonatas at Wigmore Hall is that he’s always managed to hide that fact. The last concert in the series was a reminder of just how eloquent he makes every bar seem.
Part of Blackshaw’s secret was the sheer loveliness of the sound he conjured from the Steinway. It was perfectly clear, yet with a radiance around each note, like a figure caught in a beam of light.
Then there was his generosity with time. Many pianists omit the repeats in Mozart’s sonatas, worried that an audience inured to 21st-century hurry won’t have the patience to sit through them. Blackshaw did them all, and he also chose luxuriantly slow tempi for the slow movements.
It made the variation movement which opens the A major sonata very long indeed, but it never felt so. He taught us to savour each florid roulade. Blackshaw has a faith that these phrases can bear two hearings, so did not vary them the second time round.
However, there is the public side to Mozart, the straightforwardly brilliant side, which Blackshaw didn’t project so well. The first movement of the big F major sonata needed to be more extrovert. But how well he brought out the innocence of the sonata’s finale without making it seem precious.
It was a fond farewell to a series that’s been one of the hidden jewels of London’s musical scene.
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph, 7.1.13
In the final instalment of a series comprising all of Mozart's piano sonatas, Christian Blackshaw performed four examples. The earliest dated from 1777, when the composer was 21, while the latest was his final work in the genre, written in 1789, just two years before his death. Mozart's sonatas have never attained the status ofBeethoven's canonical sequence of 32 – they present smaller technical challenges and are in no way revolutionary. But Blackshaw was consistently able to exhibit them as works of real depth, as well as ingenuity. His unshowy playing was authoritative and often distinguished.
This was observant music-making. Blackshaw was decisive and pointed in the allegro first movements, his detailed articulation never became fussy. Indeed, a further injection of personality in places would not have gone amiss. In the slow movements, notably those of the Sonata in C K309 and the D major Sonata K576, his opalescent tone gave each individual note its own luminosity, while moulding it into a shape that maintained its trajectory.
Blackshaw was assiduous in observing Mozart's repeats, allowing each work its full structural grandeur. At times, it would have been good to hear the quasi-vocal melodic lines decorated, as they would have been by Mozart and the other pianists of his day. But Blackshaw's attention to the notes was purposeful, imaginative and occasionally magical. The variations that begin the A major sonata K331 displayed an almostSchubertian tenderness to them – one of several places in which Mozart appeared to intimate his Viennese successor. Blackshaw's measured approach to the finales, too, saved them from the brittle brilliance from which they so often suffer.
George Hall, The Guardian, 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
Horses for courses: the question of which keyboard instruments suit which composers’ music is as pertinent now as it was when the harpsichord and fortepiano were competing for dominance in the 18 century.
Though Bach was a demanding connoisseur of new instruments, his music famously works on more or less anything: it dwells essentially in the mind, with considerations of timbre being secondary. But as Beethoven always wanted a bigger sound – for musical reasons as well as medical ones – he would have been delighted to get his hands on a modern Steinway, while Liszt - revelling in its luxurious colour palette - would have been over the moon. For Chopin there are pros and cons with a modern grand: his subtly calibrated art can sometimes emerge more interestingly on a Pleyel of his period.
And Mozart? When Christian Blackshaw launched into Sonata No 1 K279 on his Steinway, I had doubts. The sound seemed too rich, too fat. This was partly because of the way he played it, with the utmost delicacy in the upper registers and with muscular force down below, resulting in the balance between the registers being lost. One also wanted a transparency of sound which this instrument could never provide.
But one could savour the orchestral effects Blackshaw created in this opening recital of his Mozart sonata cycle, with virtual violins and cellos, flutes and bassoons in full antiphonal cry. Blackshaw sees his challenge as being to bring out the individual character of these finely constructed works; for him they are in effect mini-operas. And his playing was at times highly operatic, with the slow movements becoming quintessential arias: he created such beauty in the second sonata’s Adagio that I would gladly have listened to two repeats of the opening section, rather than one.
Nobody else plays Mozart as this veteran does, because nobody else has his velvet, hair-trigger touch. He attributes this to his tutelage under the great Clifford Curzon, who induced him to make every note sing; even Blackshaw’s chords are unique, with the keys stroked, and slightly arpeggiated, to feline effect. In his hands the pared-down Adagio of the K570 sonata had the expressive resonance of a concerto solo. One could argue at times with Blackshaw’s interpretations, but this series is going to be fascinating.
Michael Church, The Independent, 9.1.12
Mozart's sonatas for piano are less extrovert than his concertos for it, which is probably why they are less well-known – but, in the first recital of his Wigmore Hall cycle of this particular oeuvre, Christian Blackshaw proved emphatically that the sonatas are packed with as many musical delights and as much variety. He sees these works as mini-operas, a view borne out persuasively in these enthralling performances.
The lively outer movements sparkled with nimble-fingered brilliance – Blackshaw's dexterous negotiation, at high speed, of the potentially fiendish chromaticism in the first movement of K280 was particularly impressive. But it was the slow movements that brought out Blackshaw's most special qualities. He made the piano sing with a rare eloquence, conjuring poignancy and profundity from what is often, seemingly, the most unassuming music. The exquisitely liquid playing of K280’s Adagio imbued the arioso-like melody with yearning plaintiveness; and I have seldom heard a piano vocalise more soulfully than in the Andante con espressione of K311.
Blackshaw's masterful touch ensured performances that were never less than beautiful, but which also mined vast depths of insight. The emotions always stemmed from the music with nothing superficially theatrical about his operatic take on it: the deeply considered mien of the first movement of K310 eschewed Sturm und Drang histrionics. From Blackshaw the minor-key episode of the slow movement was extraordinarily impassioned; while the bright, major-key interlude in the intense finale seemed uncannily like a joyous rustic folk-dance.
Blackshaw's remarkable precision and fluidity ensured there was barely a note out of place. There was though sometimes a lack of clarity in the most rapid contrapuntal passages, especially in the lower register, the inevitable price of using a modern Steinway for repertoire that was written for the brittle tones of a fortepiano.
Blackshaw's propensity to perform in a barely-lit auditorium paid great dividends: the darkness seemed to concentrate attention, the audience sitting, for the most part, in rapt silence. Modestly, Blackshaw stepped further back into the shadows to take his bows during the hearty and sustained applause. Playing of this calibre ensures that this cycle is unmissable.
Graham Rogers, www.classicalsource.com, 7.1.12
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
The Financial Times
Edward Said once compared piano recitals to literary essays – the subject matter is generally canonical, technical accomplishment is expected, and it is the personal reading of a work that we, as the audience, are after. This is certainly relevant to Mozart’s piano sonatas. These pieces are not only well known but also deceptively straightforward, with a crystalline transparency that puts the soloist under much greater exposure than the more frequently performed Beethoven sonatas. Christian Blackshaw’s decision to perform all 18 works as a cycle was, therefore, a bold one.
Widely celebrated as a young musician in the 1980s, Blackshaw disappeared from the radar for nearly 20 years but is now making a spirited and impressive comeback. In this, the fourth and final concert in the roughly chronological series at St George’s, Bristol, he presented four of Mozart’s late sonatas and the conclusion of what was clearly an intense emotional arc. Elegance, sensitivity and lyricism are the chief characteristics of Blackshaw’s style and, while his approach might not be to everyone’s taste, it was excellently suited to the programme.
From the opening bars of the Sonata in C K309, he established a sense of drama that was sustained throughout the evening. In Sonata in A K331, the composer’s best known but least typical, Blackshaw emphasised the inherent vulnerability of the piece: his tempi were contemplative – especially in the central sections of the Menuetto – and, where other performers have attacked the famous “Alla turca” allegretto with gusto, Blackshaw chose to highlight its gentle playfulness, achieved without losing rhythmical thrust.
The Sonata in F K533/K494 followed in the same vein, Blackshaw carefully spelling each phrase out to us. This is no criticism; one rarely hears every note struck cleanly and with fresh wonder. Mozart’s last Sonata in D K576 provided the fitting finale. Given that this piece was published posthumously, the temptation is to enhance it with romantic gesture but Blackshaw’s rather English reserve sought out its quiet poignancy, and shaded the heart-wrenching details of the adagio with daring pianissimo.
In a world where pianists seem increasingly dependent on towering egos, Blackshaw’s understatement and shy platform manner is wonderfully refreshing. Whether these qualities would communicate as well in a really capacious venue or through rich orchestral repertoire is up for question but here, focused by an intimate atmosphere and theatrically low lighting, they shone with a unique radiance.
Laura Battle, Financial Times, 7.12.09
This recital, balancing Mozart's two final sonatas with earlier works, completed Christian Blackshaw's cycle of the composer's piano sonatas at St George's. Ordering the sonatas into a satisfying cycle is in itself quite tricky, not least since Mozart wrote only one minor-key sonata (C minor, K457) and, just as in his operas, the emotional colouring of the minor mode is an important element in the overall makeup of the works.
This was very much the case in the first movement of the C major sonata, K309, with which Blackshaw began his programme, where the tonic minor adds drama to the beginning of the development and, more unexpectedly but most poignantly, again in the recapitulation. It is an effect that Schubert later made his own, but Blackshaw did not exaggerate the moment in any way, content simply to let the music speak for itself. His approach to the sonata in A major, K331, was similarly understated, allowing the ever-more complex variations of the opening theme to unfold gracefully, and finally giving rein to the jangly clamour of the celebrated Alla Turca, its alternation of minor and major here taking on a greater than usual significance.
Blackshaw's evident affinity for Mozart was more readily apparent in the second half. In K533/494 in F major, his singing tone was deeper and more relaxed, and the phrasing seemed to describe wider arcs. Yet here and in the last sonata, K576, in D major, the essential clarity of Blackshaw's approach allowed the composer's forays in contrapuntal writing to emerge without undue earnestness. In its turn, K576's central adagio had a clarinet-like warmth with its achingly expressive F sharp minor episode coming straight from the heart. [4 Stars]
Rian Evans, The Guardian, 8.12.09
Back in Bristol, one of the finest Mozart recitals I’ve heard in years – by Christian Blackshaw...
Oliver Condy, BBC Music Magazine, December 2009
….Christian Blackshaw's recent recital of Mozart's late piano sonatas at St George's, Bristol: this pianist may not be in the first flush of youth but I reckon he's the next big thing.
Laura Battle, www.musicomh.com, December 2009
Schumann/Schubert/Liszt: St George's, Bristol - March 2008
The third of St George’s excellent celebrity piano recitals was greeted with total rapture – Blackshaw seems to have a cult following in Bristol. And it’s not surprising; from the opening bars of the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasiestucke, Blackshaw's sheer beauty of sound and the subtlety of the colouring were spellbinding.
His programme captured the very essence of romanticism, from the emotional highs and lows of the Schumann pieces, to the delicate nuances of Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage, through to the great Schubert Sonata in A.
Blackshaw is totally at home in this high point of pianism. He really makes the instrument sing. He uses pedal colour very sparingly, he never overdoes the rubato, and the sheer musicality of his readings had the audience stamping and cheering, especially after his two generous encores.
It’s rare, but here was perfection.
Helen Reid, www.crackerjack.co.uk, 10.3.08
Schumann/Mozart: Wigmore Hall, 19 September 2006
The large audience, which turned out to welcome pianist Christian Blackshaw for his recital at the Wigmore Hall on 19 September, was rewarded by playing of notable artistry and style. Schumann and Mozart were the composers represented, beginning with the former’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, most excellently projected, the work’s myriad character being brought together in admirable fashion. Mozart’s A minor Sonata K310 followed and received outstanding reading, especially in the final pages of the Andante cantabile and the concluding Presto.
Schumann’s Fantasie ended the programme. This was a performance of much feeling, a probing, exploratory and in some respects revelatory account, demonstrating this pianist’s commitment to the music. Christian Blackshaw proved himself to be an artist of perception and refinement throughout the programme.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion, 22.9.06
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
Hallé/Skrowaczewski: Beethoven Piano Concerto No 2, The Bridgewater Hall, January 2006
Then Christian Blackshaw arrived for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 2: early, lightweight, Mozart-plus...incisive dancing from Blackshaw's fingers and an equal spring in the Hallé's accompaniment. Ample quantities of wit, too, topped by Blackshaw's detached, pianissimo tip-toeing away before the final bar's forte: a lovely effect, most deftly engineered.
Geoff Brown, The Times, 31.1.06