The Spectator, 29 November 2014

Is this 65-year-old British pianist the next big thing in classical music?

Christian Blackshaw’s recordings of Mozart have already secured him a place in history

Christian Blackshaw 1

Earlier this month the Wigmore Hall was sold out for a Schubert recital by a concert pianist whose only solo recordings consist of two volumes of the Mozart piano sonatas. That would be understandable if he were 23 years old and the next big thing. But he’s 65. Though he may indeed be the next big thing.

Christian Blackshaw started big, faded into obscurity, then burst back at around the time he qualified for Boris’s Freedom Pass. Whether he owns one I can’t say. I wouldn’t dare ask, since he can be a bit prickly. In fact, he’ll probably take offence at that, so let’s note immediately that he doesn’t look his age. He has the features of a matinee idol and the swept-back silver hairstyle that Beethoven would have sported if he’d owned a comb. Actually, LvB was proud of his mane and insisted that painters depict him with a romantically dishevelled ‘do’. But I digress.

Blackshaw was born in Cheshire and educated at The King’s School, Macclesfield, though his northern accent has gone the way of Joan Bakewell’s. He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music and the St Petersburg Conservatory, whose graduates include Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Heifetz and Gergiev. He attracted the attention of his pianistic hero Clifford Curzon, who invited him to his home to play for him and discuss Mozart and Schubert.

That in itself is extraordinary. Curzon was the finest interpreter of those two composers that these islands have ever produced and famously hard to please. What did he hear in Blackshaw’s playing? Perhaps it was his supreme control of dynamics: pianissimo whispers so soft that it’s hard to believe that any mechanical action has occurred; it’s as if all he has to do is look at the key. Plus - and this would have been very important to Sir Clifford - the absence of what the Penguin Guide disapprovingly calls ‘expressive point-making’.

So what went wrong? Something horrible. His wife died of cancer in 1990, leaving him with three young daughters to bring up. He couldn’t afford childcare, so an international career was put on hold. (It’s worth saying that many pianists would have put their children second.)

But in a sense it was already on hold, because Blackshaw had turned down offers from major record companies. One was to perform Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. ‘I was moving away from that kind of repertoire and the catalogue was already saturated with performances of it,’ he explains. The other was to record a live performance of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, surely the perfect canvas for his tonal palette. Blackshaw doesn’t name the label but his website refers to a ‘German contract’ so you can guess. Why on earth did he say no?

‘My reaction was, thanks, I’m flattered, but I can’t fully illuminate something I’ve only been playing for a year, something as great as that,’ he says. Blackshaw is a perfectionist with a reverence for the composer that verges on the crippling. His elegant, impassive bearing fails to conceal his anxiety. ‘I have a vision of what a great piece is. The second movement of K570 [Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 17 in B flat] is a hymn of praise to nature, heart-rending in its simplicity. But to be able to sing these beautiful melodies you have to work ten hours a day on two phrases, putting yourself through torture in order to be free.’

Blackshaw only stepped up his performing in middle age once he’d come to terms with falling short of his Platonic ideal. As he puts it, ‘you have to say to yourself: perhaps we’ll get closer tonight and if not, I’m sorry, audience, maybe next time.’ But if you want to be present ‘next time’ you’d better book early. To cut a long story short, Blackshaw gave a cycle of the Mozart sonatas in Bristol that revealed the ‘singing soul’ that he thinks all pianists must possess. The Wigmore invited him to perform the cycle with the microphones on: the first two volumes constitute his entire solo recorded legacy to date and they’re so good that if he retired tomorrow he would never be forgotten.

The classical music world is bitchy, and some colleagues dismiss Blackshaw as the Harry Styles of ladies who lunch. It’s true that the audience for his Schubert recital was posher, more female, less Jewish and less gay than a typical Wigmore crowd. Yet at no point during his intense, private traversal of the last three sonatas did he play to the gallery. He even had the lights dimmed to distract attention from himself. It meant that none of us could read our programmes. But Clifford Curzon would surely have approved.
Damian Thompson, The Spectator, 29.11.14

Gramophone Magazine, 2 September 2013

The return of the ‘eternal perfectionist’: pianist Christian Blackshaw

The great British pianist's comeback Mozart series has been recorded by Wigmore Hall Live

When Christian Blackshaw embarked on his year-long series of Mozart Piano Sonatas at Wigmore Hall in January 2012, the prospect of listening to the final recording was still a distant concern. When I meet the concert pianist in the run-up to the CD's release, it is clearly hanging over him like a cloud. 'I will have to listen to it soon,' he says, with obvious trepidation.

But then Blackshaw, 64, is by his own admission, an eternal perfectionist. 'Surely that's the only way to be,' he says. 'It's disrespectful to the composer if you don't work like a dog to get to the point where you feel like you can really give something to the audience.'

Like the great pianist Clifford Curzon, with whom he studied in his youth, Blackshaw is wary of what he calls 'the finality' of recording; the powerlessness to improve on his performance once it is committed to disc. Over 20 years ago he turned down the possibility of a German recording contract. Nowadays he is more philosophical. 'Last year a rather well known European conductor of a rather famous orchestra told me to think of recording as being like a snapshot of your children. It's just one moment in time,' he says.

One precious moment in time. Because for Blackshaw's devotees, the new disc – released today – is a rare document of a career that, for reasons out of Blackshaw's control, took a long time to come to full fruition. Two-and-a-half decades ago he was on the verge of international stardom. Then, in the Christmas of 1990 his wife died, leaving Blackshaw with three young daughters to bring up single-handedly. 'I couldn't afford somebody to look after them. I didn't want somebody else to look after my children. So I was having to earn money to support them,' he recalls. In the meantime, his high-flying solo career was put on hold. 'Suddenly a lot of offers were also not coming in...' he trails off. 'Listen, I'm not someone who is constantly seeking performance opportunities. I rather hoped that they would (find me) but it doesn't really work that way. I'm still so naïve at my advanced age.'

The turning point was the autumn of 2009, when Blackshaw began a highly acclaimed series of Mozart recitals at St George's Bristol. Around the same time he acquired a new agent, and the first engagement he got him was...the Berlin Philharmonic. Along with that came an invitation to perform at the International Piano Series (at which Blackshaw is preparing to perform the day after we meet), and, of course, the Mozart cycle at Wigmore.

But even as his career continues to gather pace, Blackshaw displays a modesty that sets him apart from many of his peers. On the concert platform he is reserved, eschewing grand gesture and theatricality in favour of a quiet intensity. Off the platform he is self-effacing. 'I do enjoy the challenge of walking out on to the stage,' he says, 'otherwise I wouldn't put myself through it, but the older I get the more I revere these composers, and the challenge becomes much bigger.'

Along with Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Mozart has long been a particular passion of Blackshaw's. 'It was a sort of penny dropping moment discovering Mozart,' he says. 'I think I'm a frustrated singer and to me the sonatas can be construed as being mini-operas. I find his whole being informed by the voice and the vocal line.' While he emphasises the importance of maintaining 'poise' in performance, he refuses to describe Mozart's music as 'restrained'. 'There have got to be elements of joie de vivre,' he says.

What drives Blackshaw is the constant struggle to illuminate hidden codes in the music he plays, and to tap into a composer's mindset – be it the 'depression and outbursts of anger' that pervade Schubert's last three sonatas, or the 'earthy sense of humanity' that he admires in Beethoven. 'You read Beethoven's letters frustrated with copyists, editors, the linen not being clean, not having any paper, any ink, where the food is coming from, and you realise that things haven't changed that much,' he says. Then comes the act of translating his interpretation in technical terms: 'I can sort of see, rather like a sculptor, how a form is going to emerge. Then I have to knock a piece almost to bits in order to put it back together again.'

When it comes to performance, however, his ultimate goal is a state of 'slow, calm release' where he can reach 'a sense of communion'. And does he, I ask, find music more conducive to communion than words? 'Yes', he says instantly, 'There's no small talk.'
The first volume of Christian Blackshaw's Mozart Piano Sonatas series is released on Wigmore Hall Live on September 2, 2013
Hannah Nepil, Gramophone Magazine, 2.9.13

Le Devoir, Montreal, 23 November 2013

A giant emerges from the shadows

True sound gift, pianist Christian Blackshaw seems like a revelation in the classical world

One of the greatest pianists of our time is there an unknown quantity? This is what Le Devoir not hesitate to say listening to the first volume of the complete sonatas of Mozart by the British Christian Blackshaw, which appears on the Wigmore Hall label.

A pianist of 64 years "revelation of the year"? This may seem strange, but it is. The first time I heard of Christian Blackshaw, it was a musician who had crossed his path and worked with him. This artist , inclined to melancholy and haunted by the idea of death, seemed transcended : "I met a man and a musician who proves that after all, life is worth living ." The phrase resonates and is still running in my head. Christian Blackshaw had entered his life.

The next day, by total coincidence, came from the other side of the globe, and another actor in the musical life happened to me a sound gift: a movement, the Adagio from Sonata K. 280 Mozart, as no one had ever heard, as no one had ever dug or vocalized. Christian Blackshaw had entered my life.

Christian Blackshaw was born in Cheshire January 18, 1949. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Gordon Green, and then at the Conservatory of St. Petersburg, and was mentored by Clifford Curzon. This is some information that we learn about him in a short note of six lines from Wikipedia, available in English only.
Recognised by some few British media, including the Financial Times in 2009, the merit of having flushed the gem in the woods of Suffolk in a tiny shack which houses his piano and long working hours.

Those outside Britain, realized the scope of this artist can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among them, Valery Gergiev, who did Blackshaw return to St. Petersburg, the direction of the Berlin Philharmonic, which opened its room for a comeback in 2011, and Goh Yew Lin very insightful, Chairman of the Board administration Orchestra Singapore, this Berlin this evening.

If Christian Blackshaw had disappeared, this is partly because the death of his wife in 1990 put a stop to a career that followed his merry way. He then had three daughters to educate, "I had to take care of my family, but I have not stopped the piano. Some conductors, some music companies have been faithful, but I was not traveling around the world and I tried to lead my career personally " he told us when we joined him in his "funny little studio in the woods."

The result was inevitable: "When you're not visible, people tend to forget you and it is not my nature to put me in a corner and make big signs saying, 'Hey, I'm still here."

But this man has regained control of his destiny - "I have lived with a wonderful woman for 12 years. We help each other". He has an agent and feels "back on track". The year 2009 was crucial for this: first the article in the Financial Times - "a music critic came to interview me, I was so touched that he cares about me" - and then a concert society in Bristol who asked him to play Mozart, which inspired the direction of legendary Wigmore Hall in London...

The London hall offered to record his concerts. And the pianist accepted. "It is true that Deutsche Grammophon at the beginning of my career I was asked to record a recital in Munich, but it was a proposal I refused because I did not feel ready. I was also approached by EMI records." Again, a refusal because Blackshaw did not feel able "to bring something new" to the directory in question.

These refusals were not related to "the fear of making a record," but "the hope that five or ten years later I could do much better." So now? "This does not mean that I feel absolutely ready to record the sonatas of Mozart, but at my age I have more confidence I than I did. Not hard, because it's difficult to listen to myself - but I know that it is a true representation of what I did. If some of the things that held my heart had not been there, I would have been sad and felt I had failed. This does not prevent me to have hope to go even in the heart of these sonatas with "more humanity" in ten years. It may not be a final thought in a work, because it is your life that is reflected in your performance. Meeting a composer is at different times of your life. What is adagio? What is allegro vivace? What that a high or a piano, the answer seems simple when you 're 16, but later you realize that the palette is infinite."

Yes, Christian Blackshaw's afraid of certain works. For example the last Schubert sonata. "I spent two years at work before playing in public." Housed in the same boat, the 109 and 111 Sonatas opus of Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata and he will not play forever.

Obviously, the natural consequence of the full Mozart, it is the large Schubert sonatas. Christian Blackshaw has the last three in his wallet. "I've played individually, but not together in concert. If people want to hear, I will do. It will be a pleasure if I feel that what I think of these works could happen..." The big challenge is to save in public. But adding a public "increases the scope of the message by the simple fact that it is more interesting to speak to an audience than four people in a recording studio. Playing for a community is important."

Has success finally arrived? "I know too well what it is when there is too little work. I know what it is when people are polite but do not take action to commit. So I do not think I am at the limit." That said, he feared that "constantly traveling from one place to another, it is not always able to give his best." For him, "play is less a stimulus to give more and work much harder. Moreover, instead of exercising for six hours a day, now I work ten hours a day, because I have my own expectations to live up to."

Blackshaw, who admires Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Clifford Curzon, but also Alfred Brendel, is it recognized in the musical world? In fact a party? "People say the world has become more mainstream I guess if that is the case we should not be depressed...There is a place for many playing styles and a variety of directories as long as the quality remains, hopefully. If the music is too commercial, we should be worried, but if it has integrity, we have plenty of reasons for hope."

Christian Blackshaw thinks "it's now or never" needs to enjoy the "luxury" of a business registration will be able to "reach people outside the borders. Today, the opportunities are more likely to give concerts, I hope that things will flourish. Hopefully I articulated and expressed my love of these works in a positive way."

In this regard, Christian Blackshaw recognizes not too plainly be a "special psychological case." "With my character, I do not think I am the kind of person who will go on stage to unveil its core public face to strangers." However, he concedes that "something inside [him] said [he must] do it." "It's hard for me to understand why, but I need it. It is very strange as behaviour."

Blackshaw is fascinated by "the shared common experience, whether to one or a thousand people." " When I'm on stage, I have put myself in a state of mind as I am hardly there. When I put my costume on, I feel like becoming a medium between the composer and the listener, not a " real person" rather a continuum." He still marvels at the ritual where "people come to listen to someone who interprets the work of someone who is so much bigger, but which, however, needs him."

One thing is certain, "the concert is not a carbon copy of the rehearsal, it is the incarnation of your ideas. Gordon Green, who influenced me greatly, said: "Be a perfectionist in practise and a realist in concert." The concert is the implementation of what I feel inside, deeply."

His challenge is equally clear: "A piano is a percussion instrument which hammers and strikes the strings. How do you press the notes to ensure the notes result in a song? The concert, seeks help from the listener to sing to the greatest advantage."
Christophe Huss [trans.], Le Devoir [Montreal], 23.11.13

Natural Talent - FT Profile by Andrew Clark, 5 September 2009

Concert pianist Christian Blackshaw tells Andrew Clark why he likes to work surrounded by nature

We’re in the garden of Christian Blackshaw’s house, deep in the Suffolk countryside in eastern England. Behind us lies the civilised domesticity of his kitchen. Ahead looms a meadow of fern and woodland. It’s into this rustic paradise that Blackshaw leads me, until we arrive at a small clearing. There, in glorious isolation, sits a wooden hut.

“I love the idea of being surrounded by nature,” he says pensively, inviting me inside. “It’s not divorced from reality – reality lies in the practising [at the keyboard] – but it’s a place where I can think and work and concentrate on the complexities of a score, without distractions. It may seem a luxury but for me it’s a necessity.”

Blackshaw, a concert pianist of international stature, refers to the hut as his dacha, a Russian summer house, but it’s really too small for that. It does have a wood-fired stove and an armchair but its purpose is to house his grand piano, which occupies most of the floor. “It’s a modest space where I can try things out,” says Blackshaw. “No one can hear me.”

Exactly. The fact that no one can hear Blackshaw, 60, has become a running sore for his admirers. He had a brilliant early career and looked set to become one of the UK’s most substantial musical exports until a series of setbacks in the early 1990s put a block on his progress. His wife died, leaving him with three daughters to nurture. He turned down a recording contract at the very moment when he needed the fillip of publicity.

By the time Blackshaw’s life was back on track, the music world had changed. A younger breed of virtuoso had emerged – less thoughtful than Blackshaw, perhaps, and less experienced, but more up-front. Unlike Blackshaw, the new breed didn’t shy away from competitions or self-promotion. Blackshaw found himself on the sidelines, as if his maturity were a disadvantage.

But as anyone who has heard him recently will know, Blackshaw’s musicianship has not deserted him. His performances reveal all the old virtues: elegance, inwardness, delicacy of touch, poetry of feeling. Such qualities are at odds with the in-your-face pianism now fashionable but they are essential for anyone hoping to probe the keyboard oeuvre of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, on which Blackshaw has long focused.

So it is good news that Blackshaw is slowly but surely emerging from his “dacha” and taking his share of the limelight. This month he starts a cycle of Mozart piano sonatas in Bristol. A recital at London’s Wigmore Hall is promised.

Blackshaw – quietly spoken, impeccably groomed, a bit of a dreamer – is no more comfortable talking about himself than he was in the past but you cannot mistake his burning desire to rekindle his career.

“I shy away from people,” he observes in a moment of unexpected candour, “and yet I can’t wait to go out on a concert platform and bare my soul. I want to show my love of the music and share it with whoever wants to listen. [What motivates me is] that total commitment to what the score is, and trying to transmit to an audience the idea of ‘This is what I feel about this music’. Without ego. Unless you have that feeling, I don’t know how a musician can exist.”

Blackshaw’s English reserve melts when he reaches the keyboard: that’s where he expresses himself. What, then, were his artistic influences? He studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, made a precocious solo debut with the BBC Philharmonic (known then as the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), spent a summer at the Salzburg Mozarteum and won a scholarship to study in Russia. “I wanted some input from a country that had produced so many artists who could speak with such a committed voice.”

Back home, he was mentored by the great English pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, whose qualities, as fondly recalled by Blackshaw, bear an uncanny resemblance to his own pianism today. “He never struck a note in a mechanical way. He had this magical connection that is very rare – how you put your fingers on the key to make a note sing. I was struggling inside to let my true voice come out but when you’re young you don’t understand what you’re doing – you just do it. Sitting at the feet of a great master made me realise I wasn’t there yet. I didn’t know enough that was profound.”

Blackshaw says the ultimate goal in performance is a “sense of release. If you feel a connection with a great work and it speaks to you, you really want to understand it and fly with it. But to reach that stage you have to work on the minutiae. It’s the same in any art form. Look at the great ballerinas: you’re not aware of the hours and weeks and years spent honing their art. I believe I’m an intuitive musician, I still have a childlike wonder, but I hope that this side of me is now in greater harmony with an understanding and physical knowledge of the music in my fingers. Isn’t that the aspiration of every performer?”

The “harmony” to which Blackshaw aspires will come under the microscope in his upcoming Mozart performances. A cycle of those 18 sonatas is rarer than a traversal of Beethoven’s 32 but Blackshaw believes Mozart’s keyboard music is in no way inferior. “Why can’t we appreciate both? Mozart being a very vocal composer, the challenge is to make the piano sing, especially in the slow movements. The sonatas give you the luxury of wide dynamic contrasts.”

He says Mozart encompassed a wider range of expression in his sonatas than is commonly believed. “The first six are a calling card, running the gamut from sadness to joy, eloquence and wit. From the slenderest of harmonic means you have the ultimate in expression.”

Blackshaw’s conversation makes me want him spontaneously to illustrate his point. He declines: I have ventured a step too far into his world. Anyway our time is up and lunch beckons. As we emerge from the hut, discussion turns to the comparative merits of Haydn and Mozart. Blackshaw says Haydn “nearly always does the unexpected, but I don’t find the same profundity [as in Mozart]. Profundity is a strange muse. If it could be explained, wouldn’t we destroy the spontaneity of feeling?”
Christian Blackshaw’s cycle of Mozart sonatas runs from September 11 to December 4 at St George’s, Bristol;
Andrew Clark, Financial Times, 5.9.09