Christian Blackshaw at Wigmore Hall – Schubert & Schumann

Piano Sonata in A minor, D784
Fantasy in C, Op.17

Christian Blackshaw (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 16 September, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Christian Blackshaw. Photograph: ©Herbie KnottChristian Blackshaw began this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall with a troubled account of Schubert’s bleak and uncompromising Piano Sonata in A minor – sparse in texture and wide in dynamic variation. Schubert wrote it in 1823, shortly after the diagnosis of the illness that was to ultimately kill him. Blackshaw’s account communicated the anguish and desolation of his thoughts. Initially the mood was one of suppression, the audience in rapt attention at the softness of the pianist’s pianissimo, but as the first movement progressed there were outbursts, often in bare octaves, of unconcealed anger. These interventions were a jolt, ensuring the music never settled, but as Schubert became more obsessed with the two-note falling motif so Blackshaw seemed to close in on himself in a remarkably powerful way. The tension eased a little in the Andante, but concentrated intimacy was still a significant factor, the music still refusing to settle. The quick and dextrous finale, drawing its inspiration from Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, was still laced with anger which Blackshaw depicted through increasingly wild right-hand ascents. The relatively tender second theme offered hope of a final reconciliation, but this was brutally hammered into submission by Blackshaw’s final chords, crunching back into A minor with grim inevitability.

After music of such unremitting darkness the wide open spaces of Schumann’s Fantasy provided an ideal complement, and in the rapturous outpouring of its opening minutes Blackshaw laid out his performance on an expansive scale, 35 minutes in all. His use of rubato was frequent and often pronounced, but despite the odd exaggeration there was never a feeling of self-indulgence, more a sense that this very thoughtful performer had considered the extremities of his approach very carefully. The detail of Blackshaw’s interpretation was evident throughout. The different approaches to the march of the second movement were closely followed, the first with rolled arpeggios and the second more abrupt and detached. There were some unusual moments, too, such as the disorientating use of the sustaining pedal as we approached the return of the main theme in the first movement. For the final one Blackshaw stretched the dimensions of Langsam demonstrating supreme control as he battled ill-placed coughing and the totally unwelcome intervention of a mobile phone. As the music resolved in quiet contemplation, Blackshaw had successfully reached his goal without a let-up in intensity, yet a pocket of the audience applauded too early and then stopped, annoyingly breaking the spell but thankfully not completely harming the rapt atmosphere the pianist had created.

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