Saturday, 16 April 2016

CHRISTIAN BLACKSHAW Piano Recital / Review

VCH Chamber Series
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (15 April 2016)

The British pianist Christian Blackshaw's first piano recital in Singapore consisted of works “that are better than they could be performed,” to borrow the words of a certain Artur Schnabel. Austro-Germanic, that was probably what he meant, thus excluding all Slavic, French and contemporary repertoire. So no Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninov, the usual crowd-pleasers.

Nevertheless, a good house greeted Mozart's Sonata in C minor (K.457), one of two sonatas (from 18 sonatas in total) written in the minor key. The first movement was muscular and tension-laden, brought out in a crisp and sprightly manner by Blackshaw, fully aware of its symphonic possibilities. The cantabile he crafted in the slow movement outlined the the music's simplicity and beauty. The finale returned to the earlier storm and stress, but this time it felt leaner and with a meanness that provided little comfort. 

This was Mozart at his most gaunt and unsmiling, and kudos to Blackshaw for not trying to gilt-edge its overall sombre mood. However C minor gave way to C major for Schumann's Fantasie Op.17, one of his most glorious piano creations. The full flush of Romanticism would hit one in the face, and Blackshaw's generous account stirred up feelings of love and warmth through its surging pages, notwithstanding a few mishit notes.

The central movement's march strode with purpose and passion, and even the treacherous octave leaps nears its conclusion did little to faze him. These were committed whole-heartedly with no diminution of speed or power. The slow movement that was the finale unfolded majestically with the valedictory chordal climax arriving not once but twice, each time rising to an almost undescribable high, before resigning to sublime quiet C major chords.

After the interval, the sermon at the Vic continued with Schubert's final Sonata in B flat major (D.960). This, again, was a wonderfully nuanced reading, with the gravity of the first two movements balanced by the levity of the last two.

Again the warmth of sound enveloped the hall in the 1st movement's longeurs. Blackshaw omitted the exposition repeart, thus averted those uncharacteristic hiccuping bars that might have disrupted the music's inexorable flow. Neither did the music sound short-winded as a result, such was Blackshaw's mastery of exposition and development.

The opening of the timeless slow movement was marvellously weighted, its echoes resounded as if emanating from some distant valley. The life-affirming central section in A major was also built up with purpose, providing much needed contrast. Time stood still for what I consider the true heart of this masterpiece, one that reflects Schubert's inner sorrow and torment.

The last two movements seemed almost inconsequential after the first two, but what is Schubert without his humour and gaiety? The Scherzo was dainty, even skittish, but fingered with a lightness that was hard to dislike. The Hungarian-flavoured finale that followed doubled the delight, but tempered by a passionate outburst, as if trying to shake off the earlier frolicking. The all too short and abrupt ending to the sonata (contrast this with the “Great” C major Symphony) sounded as if Schubert was anxiously trying to close accounts with little more to add.

Nevetheless, Blackshaw gave an enthralling and moving account of Schubert's greatest sonata, which to be honest has not been performed much on this stage. This listener remembers great readings by Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich (1986, before he became just Stephen Kovacevich) and Nikolai Demidenko (2003), and Christian Blackshaw joins this small but illustrious list. What could possibly follow this as an encore? Schubert's Impromptu in G flat major (Op.90 No.3), played with the same grace and beauty that had distinguished all that came before.

No photographs of the concert were available, as the artist had instructed that the house-lights be dimmed to near semi-darkness for the entire duration of the concert.

& SSO musicians in
SCHUBERT'S Trout Quintet
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday 17 April 2016,  4 pm
Tickets available at SISTIC

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