In the 1980s Bernard Haitink conducted a very
fine cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos, working with Murray
Perahia. On that occasion the orchestra was the Royal Concertgebouw.
These later recordings found Haitink working with another elegant
pianist in the shape of András Schiff and with another of the
great European orchestras with which he’s formed a close association.
You may wonder why, in my opening comments, I’ve focused on the conductor rather than on the soloist. This is not to denigrate Schiff’s contribution in any way, for I enjoyed his playing very much. However, these performances demonstrate how important is the function of a conductor who is a really
good accompanist. From the very first bar of the Third concerto to the end of the Fourth Haitink doesn’t put a foot wrong. He shapes the orchestral part beautifully with a real feeling for the music and he sets tempi that are sensible, that give life to the music and which always allow Beethoven’s arguments to make their proper impact. Some may feel that the speed for the first movement of the Fourth concerto is on the spacious side but I found it persuasive. Throughout both works the playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is top class.
Schiff is a tasteful and elegant soloist. His passagework is always clean and crisp and I like in particular his reflective shaping of the slow movement of the Third concerto. I referred previously to the spacious conception of the first movement of the Fourth. I’d categorise Schiff’s approach to this movement – indeed, to the whole concerto – as thoughtful. Some listeners may find it too self-effacing and yearn for greater muscularity – and on another day, in a different mood, I might agree. But overall I enjoyed Schiff’s performances and I had the impression that he and Haitink were collaborating cohesively in the shaping of the readings.
At this point I think it’s fair to direct readers to a review
of these performances, in a previous incarnation, by Christopher Howell. I only came across this review after I’d drafted my own comments. Christopher shared my enthusiasm for Haitink’s conducting – though less so in the Fourth concerto – but was less taken by Schiff’s playing than was I. Intending purchasers ought to be aware of this divergence of view but whilst I don’t think I’d categorise either performance as a Desert Island choice they gave me pleasure. The recorded sound is good; the notes no better than serviceable.