By Spencer Allman

The Hellensmusic festival opened this year with a recital by acclaimed pianist Christian Blackshaw at St Bart’s Church, Much Marcle, on 19 May. Blackshaw is a renowned Schubertian, and the main work of the first half was that composer’s much loved ‘Moments musicaux’.

Unsurprisingly, it was an assured interpretation. Close attention to dynamic detail – so important with this music – was evident in the first of the six pieces. Blackshaw captured the jauntiness of the popular ‘Air russe’ movement, managing somehow to bring a new perspective to a tune so familiar to all concertgoers. The fourth section, with its arpeggiated theme vaguely recalling Bach, was a joy.

The rest of the concert was devoted to compositions by Liszt. It began with two items from the first of his three suites that comprise ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. These images of Switzerland are precursors of Debussyian impressionism, though they inevitably employ a more traditional harmonic language.

Our pianist brought alive the exquisite opening of ‘Les cloches de Génève’, in what was the most compelling rendition of the work I have ever heard. The ambience afforded by the wonderful church no doubt added to the thrill. The ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ was delivered with a sense of rubato that let the music breathe, despite its passages of typical Lisztian bravura. The entire second half of the concert was given over to Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, surely one of the greatest solo keyboard works of the Romantic era. It is in one long movement of strongly contrasting sections that fully explore the piano’s expressive capacities, leading the listener on a journey through a changing landscape of darkness and gloom, profound melancholy, exuberance and passion. Christian Blackshaw took us on that journey. There were key moments: the harsh Bartokian reiterations that appear early on were not rushed (they often are in other interpretations), and the devilish menace of the sonata’s central fugal section was deftly realised. Unfortunately, there was scant regard for some of the dynamic markings, though Blackshaw is by no means alone here – it seems to be almost a convention among performers that the varying gradations of loudness that the composer calls in the work for are not taken too seriously.

The piece unexpectedly ends in a weird soundworld that anticipates the harmonic gestures of Schoenberg’s opus 11. A marvellous finish - and a fabulous start to this annual musical event in Herefordshire.