English pianist Christian Blackshaw is gentle and soft-spoken. He carefully analyzes questions before answering them, not as a politician looking for the best angle, but as someone who wants to be sure that he has understood all the nuances of what he is asked.
Our Zoom conversation begins, not with Mozart – the subject of his next concert for the 40th anniversary season of Music for Galway – but with the late great John Ogdon, a giant among 20th century British pianists, who died in 1989 in the age 52. I had the privilege of interviewing Ogdon before one of his Irish appearances and he joined in our conversation for a while to praise the achievements of young pianists, with Blackshaw at the top of the list.
Blackshaw, now 72, studied with the ‘wonderful Gordon Green’ at the Royal College of Music in Manchester from the age of 16. “Gordon,” he told me, “had been John’s teacher. So maybe it was through this connection that John very generously mentioned to me. He was phenomenal talent and we missed him very much. His recording of Busoni’s Piano Concerto is absolutely amazing. He was just the sweetest, kindest man. A deep thinker. And then a lion on the keyboard.
Ogdon, of course, rose to fame early on and shared the first prize in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1962 with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Blackshaw’s career was interrupted by tragedy – the death of his wife in 1990 – and his subsequent decision to focus on raising his family at the expense of his music career.
There is an endless fascination for: how do you articulate music that is so supremely vocal with what is a percussion instrument?
His interpretations of Mozart’s piano sonatas, recorded live at Wigmore Hall in London and released on CD from 2013, have transformed the public’s perception of him. He became a specialist in Mozart. He performed the composer’s full cycle of sonatas for the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2016 and his concert in Galway will also be entirely dedicated to Mozart.
But the great Salzburg prodigy was not always quite to his liking. “I wasn’t particularly drawn to Mozart from the age of 10, 11, 12, 13,” he says. “Probably because I found him puzzled. In those early days, I loved Haydn. It seemed easier to grasp, somehow. But then I had to learn Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor, K397. And, maybe through that, I realized how amazing this person is.
He has an explanation for his precocious blindness. “I think the reason I couldn’t understand him is that he’s the supreme vocal composer. Maybe Haydn is a little more down to earth – that’s not a disrespect for Haydn, who is an imposing genius in our world, of course.
At that time he was playing “a very, very large repertoire” – “Bartók’s Sonata, Scriabin – we all have our Scriabin moments – the French repertoire, the Austro-German repertoire, a lot of Beethoven. But, as he puts it, “Mozart went into my head. There is an endless fascination with: how do you articulate music that is so supremely vocal with what is a percussion instrument, and with the thinnest means at your disposal?
“I just watched this morning, once again, the Sonata in B flat, K281. While that’s more of Haydn’s inspiration … there’s definitely an influence there, maybe, from Johann Christian Bach. But, with very thin means, he is able to articulate the beauty of the universe. If I’m not mistaken, soprano Gundula Janowitz, to whom I am devoted as a great, great artist, recently said her inspirations were Mozart and Schubert. I think it’s because of that vocal element and their worldview, which is almost unmatched.
The perfection is such that it is dangerous because you can focus on getting all the right grades in the right order. But in the process you can lose the meaning
The other composer who attracts him the most is Schumann. “When these men enter your bloodstream, you cannot escape. There is a need and a will to continue and to do better. I hear some of Mozart’s interpretations, in particular, where the notes may be there but I don’t get the meaning. And I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to unravel the mystery of the meaning. Of course, it should never seem like studied, thought out, or tied to the earth. You have to be free, but it has to come from deep inside you, down the arm, straight through the fingers and up to the fingerboard, and be an organic experience, if you will.
I offer him a quote on Mozart’s elusiveness, that when you study his work, you become convinced that you can see what you need out of the corner of your eye. But when you turn to look, it’s always in the corner of your eye.
“I often think his music is like a slippery eel. You can see them. You can try to catch them. But you can’t. They are gone when your hands are in the water. The perfection is such that it is dangerous because you can focus on getting all the right grades in the right order. But in the process, you can lose the meaning.
We are talking about the great quote from Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel, that sonatas are “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”. Blackshaw says he knows exactly what Schnabel was talking about. “In a way, the music sounds very simple. And I think when you’re very young, whether you’re six or twelve, you might think it’s too easy, so I’m not interested in that. When you’re an adult, it’s too difficult to cross the emotional and expressive barrier. I find it hard to talk about Mozart’s music. I just have to really do it.
It’s the difficulty of being a performer – just hoping we’re on the right track, that we’ll get there, not fair, but a little better next time.
He moved on to the pandemic-related thoughts on performance. “In these times, don’t you find that another essential part of giving a concert is the audience. So the three of us – the composer, performer and listener – all play their part. We are all there for the composer. I firmly believe that we are the servants of the composer.
More than once he has expressed his disapproval of a metronomic approach. “It’s wrong, isn’t it?” But then we have to have a flowing tempo. The tempo itself is still a minefield. What is an allegro? What is an adagio? What is a largo? What is an andante? The content tells you that. That said how it should be.
Of course, it’s not really that simple. “The brain tells you very often that, yes, you have found the right tempo. And if this particular performance was recorded by any means, and if I hear it in return, I’m disappointed. Because it’s either too fast or too slow. But at the time, very often, it feels good. It’s the difficulty of being a performer – just hoping that we’re on the right track, that we’ll get there, not fair, but a little better next time. There will be more expression, more feeling. But without the academic. Being free is a real gift.
“This is something Artur Schnabel may have been referring to. The freedom you feel when you are a child. You are told that you are good or whatever, and you are encouraged to keep going. As you get older and have to make these decisions on your own, you start to wonder more about what you’re doing. It’s difficult. When you hear an artist like Maria Callas, I not only marvel at the technical brilliance, [but] respect for the score. When you hear these recitatives and barely hear it breathe, especially in the bel canto repertoire, I am absolutely amazed by this miraculous artist how, in the space of one note, she is able to convey differences of note. ’emotion. This is something that we can’t really do on the piano, because once you stroke or hit the note, it is effectively gone. There are times when you can extend a sound, intuitively. But great singers can change emotion through just one note. For me, it is truly miraculous.
Christian Blackshaw plays Mozart at the Hardiman Hotel in Galway on Friday October 22. See musicforgalway.fr
Christian Blackshaw on his Galway program
Fantasy in D minor, K397
A piece that I have picked up and put down several times in my life. I had the audacity a few years ago to put a different end. It’s a student who put this pretty quick and pretty ending [Mozart never completed the work]. I don’t think it’s particularly suitable for the darkness of the opening, in particular.
Rondo in D, K485
Again, something from an earlier period in my own life. I returned there quite recently.
Adagio in B minor, K540
One of the great works of all our piano literature. Going through so many keys is in itself remarkable. People are very moved by this piece. I certainly am.
Sonata in F, K332
It is a joy. The first movement is very lyrical and people really respond to it. It makes you smile.
Sonata in C, K545
Probably one of the most difficult. How it could be called simple is beyond me. [Mozart listed it in a catalogue as being “for beginners”.] This is one of the most difficult because it is so exposed, and like any well-known movement – like the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata – having to articulate it in front of different audiences is in itself. a great task to undertake.
Sonata in C minor, K475
You can get lost in it more, because there are more notes, more expressive means. I am still puzzled as to why he wrote this sonata and the fantasy that accompanies it. Mozart lived in the Trattners’ house in Vienna. Some researchers have hinted at a possible infatuation between Wolfgang Amadeus and Theresa von Trattner. Who knows? The turbulence and mystery of the music might suggest that there could have been something. It’s a tumultuous room. And I love it.