Horses for courses: the question of which keyboard instruments suit which composers’ music is as pertinent now as it was when the harpsichord and fortepiano were competing for dominance in the 18 century.
Though Bach was a demanding connoisseur of new instruments, his music famously works on more or less anything: it dwells essentially in the mind, with considerations of timbre being secondary. But as Beethoven always wanted a bigger sound – for musical reasons as well as medical ones – he would have been delighted to get his hands on a modern Steinway, while Liszt - revelling in its luxurious colour palette - would have been over the moon. For Chopin there are pros and cons with a modern grand: his subtly calibrated art can sometimes emerge more interestingly on a Pleyel of his period.
And Mozart? When Christian Blackshaw launched into Sonata No 1 K279 on his Steinway, I had doubts. The sound seemed too rich, too fat. This was partly because of the way he played it, with the utmost delicacy in the upper registers and with muscular force down below, resulting in the balance between the registers being lost. One also wanted a transparency of sound which this instrument could never provide.
But one could savour the orchestral effects Blackshaw created in this opening recital of his Mozart sonata cycle, with virtual violins and cellos, flutes and bassoons in full antiphonal cry. Blackshaw sees his challenge as being to bring out the individual character of these finely constructed works; for him they are in effect mini-operas. And his playing was at times highly operatic, with the slow movements becoming quintessential arias: he created such beauty in the second sonata’s Adagio that I would gladly have listened to two repeats of the opening section, rather than one.
Nobody else plays Mozart as this veteran does, because nobody else has his velvet, hair-trigger touch. He attributes this to his tutelage under the great Clifford Curzon, who induced him to make every note sing; even Blackshaw’s chords are unique, with the keys stroked, and slightly arpeggiated, to feline effect. In his hands the pared-down Adagio of the K570 sonata had the expressive resonance of a concerto solo. One could argue at times with Blackshaw’s interpretations, but this series is going to be fascinating.