English pianist Christian Blackshaw is mild-mannered and soft-spoken. He parses questions carefully before answering, not like a politician looking for the best angle, but like someone who wants to be sure he has grasped all the nuances of what he has been asked.
Our Zoom conversation begins, not with Mozart – the subject of his upcoming concert for Music for Galway's 40th anniversary season – but with the late great John Ogdon, a giant among British pianists of the 20th century, who died in 1989 at the age of 52. I had the privilege of interviewing Ogdon in advance of one of his Irish appearances and he wove into our conversation a moment to praise the achievements of younger pianists, with Blackshaw high on the list.
Blackshaw, now 72, studied with “wonderful Gordon Green” at the Royal College of Music in Manchester from the age of 16. “Gordon,” he tells me, “had been John’s teacher. So maybe it was through that connection that John very generously mentioned me. He was a phenomenal talent and he’s greatly missed. His recording of the Busoni Piano Concerto is absolutely astonishing. He was just the sweetest, gentlest man. A deep thinker. And then a lion at the keyboard.”
Ogdon, of course, rocketed to fame very early, and shared the top prize at the 1962 Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow with Vladimir Ashkenazy. Blackshaw's career was interrupted by tragedy – the death of his wife in 1990 – and his subsequent decision to concentrate on raising his family at the expense of his musical career.
There's an endless fascination with: how do you articulate music that is so supremely vocal with what is a percussive instrument?
His performances of the Mozart piano sonatas, recorded live at the Wigmore Hall in London and issued on CD beginning in 2013, transformed public perception of him. He has come to be viewed as a Mozart specialist. He played the complete cycle of the composer’s sonatas for Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2016 and his concert in Galway will also be entirely devoted to Mozart.
But the great prodigy of Salzburg was not always entirely to his taste. “I was not particularly drawn to Mozart from the age of 10, 11, 12, 13,” he says. “Probably because I found him perplexing. In those early days I adored Haydn. He seemed simpler to grasp, somehow. But then I did have to learn Mozart’s D minor Fantasy, K397. And, maybe through that, I realised what an extraordinary force this person is.”
He has an explanation for his early blindness. “I think why I couldn’t understand him is that he is the supreme vocal composer. Maybe Haydn is a little more earthbound – that’s no disrespect to Haydn, who is a towering genius in our world, of course.”
In those days he played “a very, very wide 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 got into my head. There’s an endless fascination with: how do you articulate music that is so supremely vocal with what is a percussive instrument, and with the slenderest means at your disposal?
"I've just been looking this morning, once again, at the B flat Sonata, K281. While that is more Haydn in inspiration... there's certainly an influence there, possibly, of Johann Christian Bach. But, with very slender means he is able to articulate the beauty of the universe. If I'm not mistaken, the soprano Gundula Janowitz, who I'm devoted to as a great, great artist, recently said her inspirations are Mozart and Schubert. I think it's because of this vocal element and their worldly vision, which is almost incomparable."
The perfection is such that it's dangerous, because you can concentrate on getting all the right notes in the right order. But in the process you can lose meaning
The other composer he feels most deeply drawn to is Schumann. “When these men get into your bloodstream, you can’t escape. There’s a need and a wish to carry on and to do better. I hear some performances of Mozart, in particular, when the notes may be there but I don’t get the meaning. And I’ve spent a huge amount of time trying to unlock the mystery of the meaning. Of course it should never sound studied or thought-about or earthbound. You have to be free, but it has to come from deep inside you, down the arm, straight through the fingers and on to the key, and be an organic experience, if you like.”
I offer him a quotation about 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 still in the corner of your eye.
“I often think his music is like a slippery eel. You can see them. You can try and catch them. But you can’t. They’ve gone when your hands are in the water. The perfection is such that it’s dangerous, because you can concentrate on getting all the right notes in the right order. But in the process you can lose meaning.”
We talk about Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel’s great quote, that the sonatas are “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”. Blackshaw says he knows exactly what Schnabel was talking about. “Somehow the music looks very simple. And I think when you’re very young, whether you’re six or 12, one might think it’s too easy, therefore, I’m not interested. When you’re a grown up it’s too hard to cross the emotional and expressive barrier. I find it hard to talk about the music of Mozart. I just have to really do it.”
This is the difficulty of being a performer – just hoping that we're on the right track, that we're going to get it, not right, but a bit better next time
He moves on to pandemic-related thoughts about performing. “In these times, don’t you find another vital component in giving a concert is the audience. So the three of us – the composer, the performer and the listener – all play their part. We’re all there for the composer. I firmly believe we are the servants of the composer.”
More than once he expresses his disapproval of a metronomic approach. “It’s wrong, isn’t it? But then we have to have a tempo that flows. Tempo in itself is still a minefield. What is an allegro? What is an adagio? What is a largo? What is an andante? The content does tell you. It speaks how it should be.”
Of course, it’s not really that simple. “The brain very often tells you that, yes, you’ve found the right tempo. And if that particular performance has been recorded by whatever means, and if I hear it back, I’m disappointed. Because it’s either too fast or too slow. But in the moment, very often, it feels right. This is the difficulty of being a performer – just hoping that we’re on the right track, that we’re going to get it, not right, but a bit better next time. There will be more expression, more feeling. But without the academic. To be free is a real gift.
"It's something that maybe Artur Schnabel was referring to. The freedom one feels as a child. You're told you're good or whatever, and encouraged to go on. When you get older and you have to make these decisions for oneself, you begin to question more what you're doing. That's difficult. When you hear an artist such as Maria Callas, I marvel at not only the technical brilliance, [but] the adherence to the score. When you hear those recitatives, and you hear her hardly breathing, especially in the bel canto repertoire, I just absolutely marvel at this miraculous artist how, in the space of a note, she's able to convey differences in emotion. That's something we can't really do at the piano, because once you caress or strike the note, it's effectively gone. There are times when you can prolong a sound, intuitively. But the great singers can change emotion through one note. That to me is truly miraculous."
Christian Blackshaw plays Mozart at the Hardiman Hotel in Galway on Friday, October 22nd . See musicforgalway.ie
Christian Blackshaw on his Galway programme
Fantasy in D minor, K397
A piece I've picked up and put down many times in my life. I was bold enough a few years ago to put in a different ending. It was a pupil who put in that rather fast and pretty ending [Mozart never completed the work]. I don't feel it is particularly right for the darkness of the opening, in particular.
Rondo in D, K485
Again, something from an earlier period in my own life. I came back to this fairly recently.
Adagio in B minor, K540
One of the great works in our whole piano literature. To go through so many keys is itself remarkable. People are very moved by that piece. I certainly am.
Sonata in F, K332
It's a joy. The first movement is very lyrical and people really respond to it. It brings out a 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".] It 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 itself a big task to take on.
Sonata in C minor, K475
One can lose oneself more in it, because there are more notes, more expressive means. I'm always perplexed by the reason he wrote this sonata and the companion fantasy. Mozart was living in the Trattner's house in Vienna. Some scholars have alluded to a possible infatuation between Wolfgang Amadeus and Theresa von Trattner. Who knows? The music's turbulence and mystery might suggest that there could have been something. It's a tempestuous piece. And I adore it.