What was ostensibly a rather conservative programme
typical of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s standard repertoire turned out
to be a revelatory evening of music-making, with András
Schiff excelling himself as both pianist and conductor.
His concert opened with a powerfully
direct account of Franz Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture. The sustained
opening introduction was dark and brooding, with weighty and incisive
brass and timpani. The mood shifted with Schiff producing jagged, playful
rhythms, making the music dance with a buoyant eloquence. Often this
overture can sound effete and lightweight but under Schiff it sounded
refreshingly tough and grainy.
The reading of Beethoven’s Symphony
No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ veered towards the ‘classical’ rather than the ‘romantic’
with Schiff sounding more akin to Eric Kleiber rather than Wilhelm Furtwangler,
taking brisk tempi throughout, and conducting without a baton.
‘Awakening of Cheerful feelings
upon arrival in the country’ (Allegro non troppo) – was suitably
sprightly, with Schiff having complete control over the throbbing pulse
of the music. By contrast the ‘Scene by the brook’ (Andante
molto mosso) was restrained and held back, sounding more like background
muzac accompanying an airport lounge mural of a sanitised countryside.
Schiff conducted ‘Merry gathering
of country folk’ (Allegro) with rhythmic swagger and bucolic
jollity, evoking a Breughel village kermesse, extracting some very tough
and muscular string playing; disappointingly the ‘Thunder Storm’
(Allegro) had the sensation of being experienced safely from
indoors, with Andrew Smith’s timpani sounding intense but never truly
threatening: this was tamed nature with even the cello’s’ and double
basses’ rumblings sounding subdued.
An element of serenity and calm
shone through in the ‘Shepherd’s Song: Thanksgiving after the storm’
(Allegro) with Shiff holding back and allowing the notes to shine,
particularly from the Philharmonia strings who played with a shimmering
delicacy. This civilised reading was extraordinarily subtle and sensitive,
devoid of ego, excess and the eccentricity to which this popular ‘programme’
symphony often lends itself. (Or rather, conductors who tend to read
this score far too literally).
The highlight, and focal point,
of the evening was Schiff’s radical reading of Schumann’s Piano Concerto
in A minor, Op.54. Conducting from the keyboard seemed to add a
degree of risk and edge to Schiff’s magnetic playing, which in turn
produced a powerful interaction between piano and orchestra. His stern
reading of the Allegro affettuoso eschewed the usual romantic
inflections and was played at a far quicker pace than we are accustomed
to. This was Schiff’s radicalism: stripping away the clichés
and interpreting the work anew. Schiff gave the interlinking Intermezzo:
Andantino grazio a new lease of life making it sound less serene
and more severe, playing with a deliberately brittle tone which gave
the music even greater poignancy, further emphasised by the cello’s
expressively deep, dark tone.
As a conductor, Schiff’s subtle
and economic gestures produced playing of great precision, sensitivity
and intensity throughout, making the orchestral parts sound richer,
with greater darkness and dissonance. Indeed, Schiff’s conducting reminded
one of Otto Klemperer’s account with Annie Fischer and the same orchestra,
but with Schiff making the concerto sound far more ‘weighty’ and symphonic
than is usual.
Throughout this inspired and seemingly
spontaneous reading - for there was nothing consciously contrived about
his playing - Schiff’s appearance was quite extraordinary, suddenly
springing up from his stool to stand and conduct with elegant beckoning,
exhorting hand gestures; whilst playing, he seemed to throw his notes
into the air with wild abandon. Being both conductor and soloist there
was no internal conflict, and the concerto was seamlessly and perfectly
realised with great unity and added force. This was in no small measure
due to the orchestra’s perfect comprehension of his every economic gesture,
and having total rapport with the conductor’s immaculate interpretation
of the work.