South Bank Piano Series – Clifford Curzon 20th Anniversary

Sonata in C minor, K457
Fantasy in C minor, Op.17
Sonata in B flat, D960

Christian Blackshaw (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 19 September, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Even twenty years on, Sir Clifford Curzon is a hard act to follow. Since his death no British pianist has equalled him for sensitivity, poetry and lyricism. Some of his recordings, notably that of the Schubert B flat sonata, remain classic and unsurpassed. As a sheet of tributes and reminiscences to which Christian Blackshaw was a contributor indicated, he was also a deeply humane man, much loved as well as admired.

Christian Blackshaw made a valiant effort in this commemoration concert.It was a Curzon-esque – and demanding – programme, played in a demonstrably English manner, straightforwardly, sympathetically and musically. Certain moments – the first entry of the chorale-like motif in the ’Finale’ of the Schumann, or the more reflective moments of the Mozart slow movement, recalled Curzon himself.

The Fantasy is Schumann’s largest-scale solo conception, as hard to bring off as the sonatas, and significantly more complex and profound. Blackshaw’s performance was over-literal, he hesitated to let himself go in the big chords of the ’Scherzo’, or truly to convey the sense of the ’other world’ in the serene ’Finale’. Nevertheless, his playing was always coherent, generally technically secure, and well paced.Had you not known the work, you would have found a lucid and intelligent guide. Blackshaw’s Mozart was brightly lit, clear and easy to comprehend if ultimately predictable and occasionally hard-edged in tone.

It was the greatest homage, but also bold of Blackshaw to choose the Schubert B flat. His performance was fluent and idiomatic; it is a work so sunny and beautiful, so accepting of mortality, that it holds few difficulties for the listener. Letting the music speak for itself is enough to bring out endless delights. However, the late Schubert sonatas I have heard recently were from Brendel, Goode and Perahia; in such company, Blackshaw cannot quite hold his own.

Although the opening phrases (and their re-appearances) were reminiscent of his mentor in their intuitive rightness and sensitivity, Blackshaw’s undoubted musicality, and song-like treatment of themes seemed restricted in dynamic range. Un-sounded soft notes, heavy-handedness with the most filigree passages, and a lack of dramatic power flawed the first movement and made the second pretty rather than magical. The Scherzo and ’Finale’ were pleasant and winning, although there was no attempt to illuminate the work’s one puzzling moment, the offbeat accents in the ’Trio’.

This was, then, a recital that remained earth-bound – where Curzon was so often ethereally inspirational and original – not moving or enchanting, more cucumber sandwich than single malt. Nevertheless, in its charitable function (for the Park Lane Group in support of young musicians and for Saving Faces, a charity for facial surgery), to remind us of Curzon’s abiding influence, and in the workmanlike competence of the performances themselves, this was a laudable concert.

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