Much to Enjoy in Christian Blackshaw’s Twelfth Night Mozart Recital – But Mozartian Perfection is Elusive

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Christian Blackshaw (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.1.2012 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.1 in C major, KV 279/189d
Piano Sonata no.2 in F major, KV 280/189e
Piano Sonata no.8 in D major, KV 311/284c
Piano Sonata no.17 in B-flat major, KV 570
Piano Sonata no.9 in A minor, KV 310/300d


Twelfth Night last year brought the opening concert of Kings Place’s year-long Mozart Unwrapped series. This year saw the first in a series of four Wigmore Hall recitals, in which Christian Blackshaw will perform the complete piano sonatas. Whatever the instrument(s), whatever the size of the work, there is nothing more elusive than a fine performance of Mozart, the difficulty compounded by the fact that nothing less than perfection will suffice. Nowhere is one more exposed; there is nowhere to hide; everything is a balancing act – whether between the placing of every single note and the longer line, between dramatic and allegedly ‘absolute’ musical ends, between harmony and counterpoint, between comedy and tragedy, between simplicity and complexity. In every case, of course, the Mozartian dialectic requires that the one entail the other; indeed, the one simply cannot exist without the other. Mozart smiles through tears; the Angel of Death passes by even as the world rejoices. His drama is shaped, indeed formed, by form, and his form is shaped by drama. I could go on, but shall resist the temptation to extend the panegyric, since, ultimately, only Mozart’s music can speak for Mozart. But there is, I hope, some degree of method in this preamble. What might seem to be nitpicking may well be such; but even performances with estimable characteristics will not just fall short, but alas, noticeably fall short, should they not achieve greatness. Blackshaw’s recital thus had much to recommend it; I doubt that anyone would have failed to enjoy some of what he or she heard, and indeed learned from it. (That is more than can be said for a good number of Mozart performances, especially, though not exclusively, those purveyed by the ‘authenticke’ brigade.) Nevertheless, odious comparisons presented themselves, a number of shortcomings cruelly apparent.

The first sonata, KV 279/189d, received what was in many ways a successful performance (despite a number of bronchial interventions, the woman immediately in front of me unable to restrain herself even in the very first bar). Mozart’s opening Allegro was presented very much on the cusp of the Baroque and the Classical, Blackshaw employing touch, articulation, and even ornamentation, which more than once put me in mind of Scarlatti. Dynamic contrasts and shading were sensitive and relatively circumscribed: the recital as a whole was marked by reticence when it came to the capabilities of a modern concert grand. An especially pleasing and telling characteristic was Blackshaw’s slight leaning into significant, ‘surprising’, notes: never overdone, and always with good melodic and/or harmonic reason. His slow movement captured the CPE Bach-like quirkiness of Mozart’s melodic construction, without damage to the echt-Mozartian cantabile. It was ‘flowing’, to use the modern euphemism, but not unduly so, though there were times here and elsewhere when I wished the pianist would yield a little. The finale was granted a helter-skelter, almost impish, Haydnesque quality. Quasi-orchestral passages might have been presented more vigorously, but that was clearly not Blackshaw’s way. One cannot always hear Daniel Barenboim in such repertoire.

KV 280/189e, the successor sonata in F major, again benefited from clean articulation. Its first movement was elegant and resolutely un-Romantic, yet it did not lack mystery and magic. Mozart in the slow movement’s minor mode was given his chromatic day, the opening siciliano rhythm sensitively handled. The finale, by contrast, was accorded a lightly quirky reading, Haydn and Emanuel Bach joining forces.

The D major sonata, KV 311/284c, benefited from a first movement in which occasional early tentativeness had been vanquished. It was less stylised, with a more dynamic sense of sonata form – and good humour. Even here, however, there remained a sense of things being slightly underplayed. The Andante con espressivo was resolutely unsentimental, but expressive within relatively circumscribed – ‘absolute musical’? – limits. It suffered from a bizarre spoken intervention from a member of the audience (though it was unclear what she was announcing, let alone why.) What was missing, though, was a sense of what was at stake; there was no prospect of being ravished, as one must. The drama was strictly observed rather than experienced. Fussiness in the phrasing detracted from the third movement’s greater line. It was not without incident, but needed greater formal dynamism – and less dramatic reticence. Here, too often, phrase merely followed phrase, rather than followed on from it; this was Meissen Mozart. Pianists such as Barenboim, András Schiff, Dame Mitsuko Uchida all present more convincing solutions – and they, for better or worse, remain in one’s memory.

The second half opened with the late B-flat major sonata, KV 570. It began well, with a definite ‘late’ simplicity: a secondary simplicity, of course. Clarity of line could hardly be faulted, especially in the Bachian (this time, JS) counterpoint. As expected, this was not big-boned Mozart, alla Barenboim, but within its confines, there was much to delight, not least Mozart’s extraordinary contrapuntal spareness (not quite the same thing as clarity, though dependent upon it). Unfortunately, the slow movement was less successful, the balance between individual placing of notes and the longer line tilted too obviously in favour of the former. (It must be reiterated that to achieve a perfect balance is both necessary and well-nigh impossible.) More serious, however, was the lack of dramatic dynamism; the performance veered, especially during the minor key material, dangerously close to plodding. Though not especially slow, it felt so. The closing Allegretto is every bit as difficult to bring off, as fragile as Così fan tutte or La clemenza di Tito. Nevertheless, competing demands were brought together far more convincingly, largely on account of superior communication of phrasing and larger-scale structure, permitting detail to speak for itself rather than to stand out.

Finally came the great A minor sonata. Its opening Allegro maestoso received more in the way of marked dynamic contrast, as is surely necessary, though an element of restraint remained. (Restraint, mind, rather than inhibition, though I longed for the gloves to come off.) Martial rhythms were nicely turned, if hardly Romantically vehement. And there were times when the music sounded unduly foursquare: a stronger sense, or at least communication, of long-distance hearing (Furtwängler’s Fernhören) would have helped here. As often before, the music stopped rather than concluded or climaxed. The slow movement was finely articulated but static; if there was much to savour, this glorious aria lacked a sense of unity and thus sounded over-extended. (Listen to Dinu Lipatti: one longs for more.) Blackshaw’s performance of the finale, however, was first-class. How well the pianist captured the elusive mixture of will-o’-the-wisp and inexorable fat: a premonition of Schubert, albeit with astonishing brevity.

Mark Berry

Subsequent recitals will take place on 23 May, 25 September, and 5 January (2013). This concert was recorded for Wigmore Hall Live.