Straight backed and undemonstrative, Christian Blackshaw is a model of platform deportment. A request by him to dim the house lights ensured a special intimacy in the almost-full hall and drew us into his semi-private orbit. His focus would be of no surprise for those who have followed this 65-year-old's gradual re-emergence as an artist in recent years and one who relinquished the international limelight for nearly two decades in the 1990s in order to bring up three daughters after the death of his wife. His personal loss has been our gain and, even though he seems to focus almost exclusively on Mozart and Schubert, there are few British pianists these days who can hypnotise their audiences quite like he did on Thursday evening.

Christian Blackshaw © Herbie Knott
Christian Blackshaw
© Herbie Knott

Such was Blackshaw’s engagement with Schubert’s last three piano sonatas that they could almost have been written with his temperament in mind. In his attention to detail, the myriad differences of light and shade and delicate pauses that characterise Blackshaw’s playing one might sense some divine inspiration coursing through his fingers. From the first assertive chords that open the Sonata in C minor, D.958 it was clear that Blackshaw could also deliver strong, muscular playing. Whilst this sonata is the most dramatic, energetic and outgoing of the last three, Schubert generally keeps power and passion in reserve so Blackshaw’s relatively few explosive moments were particularly welcome. What he does brilliantly is to find the emotional core of a movement and in the Adagio he fashioned wonderfully poetic tones imbuing each note with finely calibrated weight and at the same time allowing a sense of connection to achieve an unbroken line. Clarity of line and crisp articulation also inhabited the closing tarantella – a movement that seems, temporally at least, to transcend the composer’s knowledge that in September 1828 (when these sonatas were written) he had only a few weeks to live.

It is perhaps the reality and frustration of this knowledge that is built into the prophetic slow movement of the Sonata in A major, D.959 where outer sections of heart-rending melancholy embrace one of Schubert’s most turbulent outbursts. Blackshaw approached this central panel cautiously, not wanting to reach those frenzied fortissimos too soon, holding back just enough but denying none of their shock value when they occurred and reminding us in the process that Schubert was still very much a young man. Emotions in this sonata turn on a sixpence and in the Scherzo, Blackshaw delivered its glitter with infinite care, nothing overdone or superficial but, nevertheless, exciting in its dynamic and tonal control.

And so to Schubert’s haunting farewell to the piano: his Sonata in B flat, D.960. From this sublime performance it is all too apparent that Blackshaw has been immersed in this music for a long time, refining his approach to the point where few other pianists can touch him. He is that artist who can cast a spell on an audience in just a handful of notes. In the repeated note main theme of the opening movement (with those ominous bass trills) he gave us a sense of Schubert’s acceptance of his situation (or is it resignation?) and by the slow movement (now evoking tolling bells) we had virtually arrived in heaven. Here, Blackshaw’s tendency to delay the arrival of notes (verging on a mannerism) was heart-stopping and his ability to sustain a coherent thread through Schubert’s ruminations, both here and in the discursive finale, was beyond measure. At the end, one was left in no doubt about Blackshaw’s magisterial playing, his emotional range from melting expressive to high drama allied to flawless virtuosity and searching intelligence which was totally compelling from start to finish.

*****