Philharmonia Orchestra/András Schiff Schubert Symphony Cycle – 1

Symphony No.1 in D, D82
Piano Sonata in A, D664
Symphony No.4 in C minor, D417 (Tragic)

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

András Schiff has latterly made an increasing priority of directing from the piano and conducting, and this series of four Schubert concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra ought to prove the ideal means of demonstrating his prowess in both capacities – and in a composer he has served well over the course of his career.

Each of the four concerts will feature two Schubert symphonies alongside a major piano work. Schiff made an integral recording of the sonatas during his years with Decca, but this account of the A major Sonata confirmed that his insight into this music has continued to deepen. Rarely can the songful manner of the opening movement have been brought into closer accord with its probing and sometimes-contradictory accompaniment, giving the music a motivating tension that audibly sustained both halves of the movement (both repeated by Schiff) before the almost brusque coda. The pathos of the Andante was deftly underlined, and the finale exuded a Chopinesque animation that persisted right through to the decisive final chords. Schiff the pianist still has much to say about his chosen repertoire.

But, on the basis of the two symphonies heard here, does Schiff the conductor? The performances only intermittently convinced. The orchestral layout – with antiphonal violins divided left and right, double basses placed behind the first – brought less internal clarity than expected to compensate for a lack of tonal depth, while the inclusion of trumpets alongside woodwinds prevented their cutting through the tuttis. An attentive though non-fussy conductor, Schiff occasionally over-pointed detail, but his grasp of the tempo relationships that create the momentum underlying each movement was rarely, if ever, in doubt.

The works themselves were well chosen to illustrate Schubert’s evolving symphonism: the First (1813), in which his sheer creative flair often over-extends itself; and the Fourth (1816), with its two pairs of horns (a fifth being added here for reinforcement as appropriate) and an expressive reach that marks this out as no mean masterpiece.

The first movements brought out the strengths and weaknesses of Schiff’s approach. Poor internal balance and rhythmic rigidity marred the introduction to No.1, but the Allegro did not lack energy, while Schiff’s transition into the recall of the introduction prior to the recapitulation was expertly gauged. In No.4, the introduction took on a gravitas that amply prepared for the journey to come, and the Allegro, steadier than is now the norm, made the most of Schubert’s tonal subtleties – for all that the burst of C major at the close lacked a cumulative sense of release.

Schiff’s approach to the Andante movements was unexceptionally fine. That of No.1 evinced a lilting charm, and the wistful transition into the second return of the main theme found the Philharmonia woodwind at its finest. In No.4, he brought the complementary themes into exact accord, so that the rhythmic drive of the minor-key episode became suffused into the final recall of the main theme with unobtrusive rightness – the music thus gaining momentum by inference rather than in actuality.

The Minuet of No.1 had a charging vitality, even though certain details were lost as a result, and its Trio enjoyed a relaxed gait that benefited from a fractional holding back on the beat. That of No. 4, however, was a treat in that its tricky, off-beat rhythmic profile was given with a conviction such as defeats many conductors, with the insinuating charm of its Trio not precluding a necessary touch of pathos.

Schiff’s approach to the finales of each symphony was fully commensurate with each work as a whole. In No.1, he brought out the music’s engaging vitality and purpose – while never disguising the fact that the coda is less a determined outcome than an unashamed ‘playing to the gallery’. The much greater dramatic breadth and tonal control of that in No.4 was purposefully dispatched – less ‘edge of seat’ than it can be (such as Thomas Zehetmair last year), but with an intent to, and skilful dynamic shading of, climaxes that sustained tension right up to the decisive closing chords.

So, for the most part, this was a convincing demonstration of Schiff’s conducting prowess in music on which he has clearly expended much time and preparation. The second concert is as detailed below and the remaining ones are in December: on the basis of this first showing, it should be worth staying the course.

  • Second concert (Symphonies 2 & 5 and Impromptus, D899) in Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 1 April at 3 p.m.
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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