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.