Philharmonia Orchestra/Schiff – 19 June

Schubert
Rosamunde – Overture
Beethoven
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Schumann
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano)


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 19 June, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

An unexpected treat was András Schiff’s gravely eccentric impersonation of a stiff, middle-European Kapellmeister. He was both mannered and well mannered – shaking hands with some players and offering others an Indian guru’s greeting. He stamped no beat in Lully’s manner – but came close during the Schumann tuttis.

Rosamunde was unfortunate. The C minor opening – thunderously, brusquely ’tragic’ – led into a string-accompaniment of lied-like porcelain. We then slithered into a limp rendition of one of Schubert’s bounciest, most tuneful and joyful allegros. This was not an encouraging start!

The first two movements of the Pastoral proved enjoyable. Contributing greatly was the orchestral layout: antiphonal violins with horns behind the seconds, and timpani and other brass further behind; cellos and violas were centrally placed with woodwind behind them; the masterstroke – on a raised platform at the back – was the six double basses that made an utterly fundamental contribution.

Throughout, speeds were fast. We jogged across the country; the brook ran swiftly – swollen by rain, presumably; the peasants must have been out of breath. The storm passed before it had really started – and the hymn of thanksgiving, louder at first than the storm (I swear!) sagged in the middle before culminating in an exuberant burst of joy.

The first movement, though, was joyful and engaging, vigorous and onward pressing. The sounds were limpid and resilient, light-hearted and perky, easy and unhurried. This was assured playing from one of the great orchestras. The supreme music-making of the evening was the slow movement. The strings were both rich and flowing; the brass and woodwind played with peaceful clarity – listening was a rural delight. Sublime, intermittent interventions from the basses grounded the movement in the serene gravitas of the earth’s own pulse. The Philharmonia did Beethoven proud.

As for the Schumann, hear first Daniel Barenboim: “Celibidache was a really fantastic accompanist. If you were on the same wavelength as him musically, he gave you an amount of freedom to play that was very unusual.” Try their recording on EMI 5574172.

Schiff the conductor couldn’t give such liberties to Schiff the pianist. This was a robust, rhythmic, march-like performance – clearly written by Florestan … with Eusebius locked in the cellar. Before this performance, I had never thought of the first movement as being rather jolly: towards its end, ’Florestan’ Schiff seemed to be treating us to some Alkan! In the ravishing cello tune that blossoms in the slow movement I finally caught Robert Schumann’s voice. The bridge passage between the Intermezzo and the ’Allegro vivace’ impressed, too. In this last movement Schiff pounded away vigorously and was rapturously received.

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