Philharmonia Orchestra/András Schiff [Brahms, Haydn & Beethoven]

Variations on a Theme by Haydn (St Antony Chorale), Op.56a
Symphony No.104 in D (London)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 20 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

András Schiff gave us three staple works in performances of startling freshness, warmth and vitality. He opted for antiphonal violins, with cellos left-centre, and double basses at the back of the platform, which paid handsome dividends.

Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn (in fact the St Antony Chorale), here in a continual sense of forward motion, shifted deftly between the elegant, the deeply expressive and the jaunty. The Andante con moto fourth variation was done with exquisite refinement, boasting an entrancingly hushed middle section, and the Grazioso seventh enjoyed silky violins, wondrously expressive winds and sonorous lower strings.

Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony (the last of twelve such works) was equally satisfying. The burnished cellos and double basses added impressively to the imperiousness of the slow introduction, in which violins conjured a striking sense of melancholy, plangent bassoons and oboe piercing through. With the arrival of the Allegro it was gratifying to hear the violas so well defined, and the writing for the Second Violins so clearly differentiated from the Firsts. The perkiness, elegance and sheer verve of the performance were a delight. In the Andante, grace was again the touchstone, and the Minuet, apart from the entrancing lift that Schiff gave it, included some ear-catching playing from guest bassoonist Anders Engström. Schiff had the measure of the finale, finding an exact combination of propulsion, joie de vivre and exhilaration for a heady conclusion.

In Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto an abiding aspect of Schiff’s playing was the variety of light and shade he extracted from his instrument. He had the inestimable good fortune to be partnered by musicians in whom he had complete confidence occasionally directing them with a mere incline of the head. Schiff has that special capacity to convey depths of emotion without self-indulgence, something that was particularly evident in the first-movement cadenza in which muscularity and interiority were beautifully in balance, as they were in the slow movement, too. The same strengths informed the finale, in which, despite the outward playfulness, the music’s underlying granite-like seriousness of purpose was purposefully realised. Near the close there was a passage of great beauty for violas and lone cello, just one of myriad details that marked this performance, and the whole concert, as exceptional. As an encore Schiff played Schubert’s Hungarian Melody, according it a heart-meltingly tender performance.

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