Technical brilliance shines without overplaying



Victoria Concert Hall/Last Friday

Lovers of the piano received an early treat this year, with celebrated British pianist Christian Blackshaw presenting a large-scale recital that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best piano recitals heard here in recent years.

The subdued stage lighting as he came on stage was a prelude to an intimate but powerful account of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 14 In C Minor K. 457.

Whereas others perform with the glare of strong lighting concentrated on the soloist, the gentler lighting washing the front of the stage and the organ pipes in the background was very welcome.

The sonata was written with more passion and depth than any of Mozart's earlier sonatas and was a harbinger of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata 15 years later.

Blackshaw's deft fingering made easy work of the typically Mozartean runs and grace notes in the first movement, which was followed by a quiet, heartfelt slow movement.

His tonal palette broadened and his playing took on greater intensity in Schumann's Fantasie In C Major, Op. 17.

The three-movement work overflows with emotion - from the composer's infatuation with Clara Wieke, daughter of his piano teacher, to his great admiration of Beethoven.

Blackshaw's thoughtful intensity made the opening movement highly moving and his ability to portray scale and structure made for an impressive second movement.

The third movement is melancholic and tender.

Here, his subtle dynamic shading depicted Schumann's longing and passion to perfection, making it the highlight of the first half.

Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21 In B-flat Major D. 960 is the final of his "last three piano sonatas", written when he was in terminal decline. The two other sonatas were performed at last year's Singapore International Piano Festival, making this performance the grand conclusion of a miniature Schubert cycle.

The sonata is a deeply moving musical journey, but without any sense of bitterness or remorse. Blackshaw's account of it was one that elevated the composer's genius and the profundity of his music.

Strains of Schubert's beloved lieder (German art songs) were never far away in the first movement.

A twinge of sadness accompanied the slow movement, but Blackshaw never allowed it to wallow and it was followed by a delightfully ebullient scherzo.

The recital was a welcome balm for those who tire of virtuosi who try to overpower keyboards into submission or seem to choreograph every movement on stage.

Blackshaw's technical brilliance shone without shouting and his highly thoughtful interpretations were quietly convincing.

The concert hall's Steinway grand sounded particularly noble and tuneful, but that was down to his seemingly limitless range of touch.

Some movements in the Mozart and Schubert sonatas were a tad slow in comparison with what is often heard in concert these days, but Blackshaw's focus and intensity ensured that none but the metronome-obsessed would notice.

It was a joy to see and hear this unassuming genius captivate the audience without resorting to manic tempos, overplayed fortissimos or feigned gestures.

This was a performance of the highest order.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Technical brilliance shines without overplaying'. Subscribe