Philharmonia Orchestra/András Schiff – Schumann

Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op.92
Papillons, Op.2
Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra, Op.86
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [Revised Version]

Nigel Black, Laurence Davies, Cormac Ó hAodáin & James Handy (horns)

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 6 July, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Amid the Mozart-mania this year, the 150th-anniversary of Robert Schumann’s death has gone for almost nothing.

However, this excellent programme by András Schiff and the Philharmonia Orchestra showed the varied character of Schumann’s genius, mixing orchestral with a piano work in the ideal space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The Introduction and Allegro appassionato is infrequently performed, and it is not hard to see why! Even in this exemplary performance directed by Schiff from the keyboard, its structural weaknesses were apparent, and it is not the equal of the earlier Piano Concerto. Schiff’s performance of Papillons was much more enjoyable. He brought out the fragile delicacy of these delicious miniatures with a palette of glittering colours and elegant rubato.

There can be few more viscerally thrilling sounds in music than the blazing fanfare that opens Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra. The work dates from the composer’s time in Dresden, a period of experimentation with unusual forms and instrumental combinations, and due to the challenges of the solo parts this work is too rarely performed; it is one of his best orchestral works, formally satisfying and melodically inspired. The work inhabits the poetic world of the ‘Märchen’, the German folk fairy-tales with which Schumann was fascinated, and the heroics of the four virtuoso soloists is contrasted with the twilight beauty of the central ‘Romanze’. The Philharmonia’s horn section – Nigel Black, Laurence Davies, Cormac Ó hAodáin and James Handy – played with bite and finesse, and if there was occasionally too much edge to their sound, this was more than compensated by the flamboyant musicality of their playing.

Schumann’s Fourth is his most successful of his symphonies, deploying the same thematic material through movements of contrasting moods. It was here delivered sensitively, with beautiful chamber playing from the string-section leaders as well as the woodwinds, and a warm, unified tutti sound. While Schiff’s interpretation was not dramatic or interventionist, it was nicely judged, emphasising the thematic links between movements. The brass chords of the apotheosis, at the start of the fourth movement, were suitably weighty, leading into a charged reading of the finale.

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