Philharmonia Orchestra/András Schiff Schubert Symphony Cycle – 2

Symphony No.2 in B flat, D125
Impromptus, D899
Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 1 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

András Schiff is conducting Schubert’s symphonies and also playing some of works for piano in a series of Philharmonia Orchestra concerts.

A carefree, sunny Sunday afternoon seemed to lend this concert an air of slight laziness. It is true that the performance of the symphonies had a fluidity and sparkling quality that one associates with Mozart and Haydn (something not that difficult to achieve with these works of Schubert) but, surely, the pieces speak more of a language than that. For instance, in the outer movements of the Fifth Symphony there are episodes that one could consider to be dark and moody, but which here sounded light and fizzy; yet this did not detract too much from the performance, which was enjoyable.

The Impromptus found Schiff at his most expressive and subtle. What was striking about his rendition was that, regardless of how natural and serene Schiff was at the keyboard, he managed to conjure up atmospheres of dark and light with Schubert’s genius turns of phrase. The all-important balance between the hands, as in the final Impromptu, in which the vibrant left-hand theme pulsates over the right’s rippling, was superb. The highlight was the second piece where the music’s violence, come the coda, allowed Schiff to betray his nice-man image, if only briefly. The G flat Impromptu, whose opening is so reminiscent of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Auf dem Wasser zu singen”, was graceful and had a serene, flowing quality.

Framing the Impromptus were the two symphonies Schubert wrote in B flat, a key so often associated with a mood of optimism. While one may not have come away from either performance with a life-changing epiphany, it certainly put a spring in the step and displayed the lyricism and momentum typical of Schubert’s symphonies. Forward momentum characterises Schiff’s interpretations. Where called for there was absolutely no slack time and although his conducting was of the most delicate manner, apocalyptic destinations made their mark but the rushing melody from the first violins in the opening movement needed more life and thrust albeit such impetus came from the brass and the double basses. Woodwinds tended to be submerged by the (antiphonal) violins. Nevertheless suggestions of superficiality were most marked in the finale (curiously marked Presto vivace) due to surface gloss.

The Fifth symphony fared better. The reduced forces that Schubert’s score calls for are ideally suited to this hall: no timpani, trumpets or clarinets. Special mention goes to Kenneth Smith whose wonderful contributions on the flute had the most calming and evocative feel. The central yearning section of the Andante con moto seemed to lack emotional sweep but the main theme’s return was, in its way, heavily Romantic and the lingering coda was well expressed. The Minuet (really a scherzo) lacked the required level of tension but the Trio was superbly played yet it was only in the finale that the musicians seemed to sit up; here Schiff really explored Schubert’s intentions – a lightness of touch and an unflagging forward impetus revealed something magical.

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Corin Long, a former double bass player in the Philharmonia Orchestra and who was latterly the principal in the Royal Philharmonic, who died in an accident the Thursday before.

The Schubert series continues in December in the Royal Festival Hall.

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