The man with silver hair

Christian Blackshaw | Colin Stone, Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Twenty years ago, Christian Blackshaw was given the audience prize at the prestigious Rubinstein Competition in Israel - there was an outcry when he wasn't outright "winner". You'd expect the audience in Tel Aviv to like a pianist with a bit more temperament, though perhaps Blackshaw has relaxed with maturity: it was a shock last Friday to see that his hair is now silver.

Twenty years ago, Christian Blackshaw was given the audience prize at the prestigious Rubinstein Competition in Israel - there was an outcry when he wasn't outright "winner". You'd expect the audience in Tel Aviv to like a pianist with a bit more temperament, though perhaps Blackshaw has relaxed with maturity: it was a shock last Friday to see that his hair is now silver.

He played Mozart's B flat Sonata, K570, with impeccable elegance. Does anyone remember that expensive fragrance, Blue Grass? It was like that. Fine. But he followed it with Schubert's Drei Klavierstücke - leisurely impromptus in all but name - by the end of which I was suffocating from good taste. It's a pity pianists seem bound to play all three together anyway, but there were still two pieces by Liszt to come before the interval. In Les Cloches de Genÿve, Liszt's wanton melodic style surely called for more passion, and as the storm built up in Vallée d'Obermann, Blackshaw was a bit cautious and sought safety in pedalling that was too generous for this hall.

It was good to give Schumann's underplayed Humoreske the honour of filling the second half, and just as well, since some of its episodic sections were so slow that they almost came to a standstill. Blackshaw doesn't really revel in bravura, and brilliant passages were a little woolly. Yet one thing you couldn't accuse him of was being insensitive. A little less virtue, and rather more vice, would have made his playing more interesting.

Colin Stone, on Sunday evening, was a similar case. He didn't make a single ugly sound, he was relaxed and had excellent posture at the keyboard. Yet he managed to make the magnificent Toccata opening Bach's Sixth Partita boring, and none of the following six movements had any intensity. The closing bars of each half of the Corrente were wasted in a mumble.

The dance element reappeared in the first performance of Robert Keeley's Waltz Fantasy, prompted by the example of Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales. Keeley re-interpreted traditional patterns in a similar, though more dissonant, way, but the élan and rhythmic spring of waltzes were missing from Stone's playing, and the music surely needed more colour to come alive.

One of this young pianist's main faults was insufficient firmness in his touch. In Schumann's eight Fantasiestücke, Op 12, he sometimes captured an endearing intimacy and tenderness, yet you felt the sound was so fragile, the merest breeze might blow it away. The melody floating through "Des Abends" went limp because it was weakly projected, "Grillen" was nicely shaped but needed a bit more spirit, and the final piece called for more resolve and rhythmic backbone. Still, it was nice to hear a light touch brought to Liszt's First Mephisto Waltz, even if that didn't save Stone from some of its hazards.

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