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Seen and Heard Concert Review

 

Haydn, Bartók, Dvorák: András Schiff (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra/Uri Segal, QEH, 20.12. 2005 (CC)

 


According to the programme booklet, it was Schiff that was to steer the course of the evening's music - he was listed as conductor/piano - even though the SBC website promised that Israeli Uri Segal would conduct. Well, Segal was indeed present but there was no indication of him anywhere that I could see – very confusing for those who came in 'blind, as it were – especially since a biography of Christoph von Dohnányi was included in the booklet too.

Still, this ended up as a most rewarding concert, particularly in the first half. Haydn's 93rd Symphony (in D) is a delightful work complete with a farty bassoon joke in the second movement. The first movement's slow introduction is fairly adventurous and was marked in this performance by lovingly-shaped violin phrasing and incisive timpani. A shame then, that the Allegro assai had a rather muddy start (something that also afflicted the finale's opening bars). Segal is clearly more at home in the work's more dramatic, 'Sturm und Drang' moments than with Haydn's more charming side as the contrasting sections of the first movement showed. The solo string contributions to the slow movement however, were a delight particularly those from leader Maya Iwabuchi. The finale was underscored by such seriousness of intent that the music was never merely playful.

The concept of string solos taken from the main body of the music linked the two pieces in the concert's first half. Bartók's ever-popular Divertimento was given a full-blooded account complete with solo contributions that once again were of the utmost excellence. Perhaps the Molto adagio slow movement was the highlight, moving to a very effective climax carefully prepared by Segal, and including some gorgeous moments of the stillest pianissimi. No doubting the rustic dance that is the origin of the finale either - excellent pizzicati and a sort of Bartókian Sugar Plum Fairy!

Finally, to Dvorák's magnificent Piano Concerto. Schiff was billed to direct this, though Segal conducted in the end and revealed a dramatic conception of the orchestral exposition (such a pity though that high strings sound so shrill in the QEH). Schiff's idiosyncrasies were evident from the start however and his entering ppppp moved quickly into an over-projected right-hand. All in all, he seemed to take his time to warm to Dvorák's lovely sound world: his idea of deliberately lightening his tone for some of the more awkwardly written moments was effective, but this music requires fire too. Though the orchestra tried hard to provide the necessary spark, without active participation by the soloist, the attempt was simply not enough.

Matters improved for the slow movement, with excellent woodwind/piano communication and special mention should go to the characterful solo bassoon. Yet the finale scuppered the preceding good work and here, the the main theme's repeated notes sounded just plain awkward. The performance generally, seemed under-the-weather and in some parts came across as disjointed - unnecessarily so, as Richter showed us in his recording with Carlos Kleiber, now on EMI GROC CDM5 66895-2. Schiff's low-voltage account did Dvorák's score no favours and, I'm sure, won it few new friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Clarke

 

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