Philharmonia/Schiff – 10 April

Coriolan – Overture, Op. 62
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.4 in C minor, D417 (Tragic)

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 April, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

By a curious dint – or co-incidence? – of programming, all three worksin this concert were centred around the darkly dramatic key of C minor,although the genius of both Beethoven and Schubert ensured that lightand shade were let in as and when appropriate.

The stark and severe opening of Beethoven’s Coriolan foundthe Philharmonia in good fettle, though the tutti chords were notexecuted unanimously right at the start. There was a good blend of tone, and it was especially pleasing to hear inner parts made clear with string figuration particularly telling. If there was no blazing sense of drama and conflict, then this was due, I’m afraid, to the rather lacklustre direction from the podium which was an impediment to enjoyment and appreciation throughout this programme, finely though the orchestra played collectively and individually.

Schubert’s youthful Fourth Symphony, completed when the composer was not yet 20, but not heard in public until over thirty years after his death, is clearly modelled on Mozart’s late symphonies – No.40 in particular – with a dash of Haydn in ’Sturm und Drang’ mode. For all its felicity of detail and invention, it has to be said that some of the structuring of the movements is rather weak, and yet given that Schubert had hardly heard a note of his music performed, it is still a remarkable creation.

Much debate and scholarship surrounds the interpretation of a number ofmarkings in Schubert’s scores – particularly ones that appear to bediminuendos and/or accents. Suffice it to say that the latter are oftenconfused, but Schiff chose to ignore this issue and so the introductionto the first movement was littered with fussy diminuendos, especially onforceful chords. Claudio Abbado, in his recorded cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, demonstrates that accents are more appropriate and effective in this instance. The ensuing ’Allegro’ was quite sprightly, but even though the Philharmonia was reduced in number, there was a heaviness about the playing which did not suit Schubert’s textures. One wanted a lighter touch so that the music could breathe more naturally.

The tempo of the second movement Andante was well judged, but stringsdid not begin anything near the pianissimo marking and the whole moodwas somewhat restless and loud, when quite the opposite should be thecase. On the other hand, the Minuet – which is anything but light incharacter – was suitably vigorous and sturdy, with a nice relaxation ofmomentum for the gentle Trio where the unanimity of phrasing wasnoteworthy. There was a suitable sense of agitation in the Finale which had a compelling feeling of moving from darkness to light as the musicswitched to the major towards the end. The constantly reiterated rhythmsin the lower strings – admittedly rather ungrateful writing – were tirelessly delivered and the conclusion was satisfyingly optimistic with a full and rich orchestral sound.

I have often doubted the wisdom of pianists directing Beethoven’sconcertos from the keyboard. One can just about get away with it in thefirst two (witness Schiff’s superb performance of No. 2 at last year’sProms with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe), but with the weightiermaterial of the later concertos, an authoritative conductorial presenceis surely essential, and in any case, close collaboration betweenconductor and soloist is at the very least desirable.

Whilst it goes without saying that the Philharmonia’s playing wasinvariably secure, there were some tentative moments and Schiff’splaying was not without blemish on this occasion. In the first movement, the dynamics were scrupulously observed with some fine quiet playing in the passages in the major, but the relentless, somewhat grim character of this music was not especially well depicted, although the quiet orchestral entry after the cadenza was absolutely magical.

The ’Largo’ was broadly, even romantically played and the rippling piano writing communed sensitively with the winds, with pizzicati delicately etched in. Schiff set a commendably steady tempo for the Finale, but there were places where one felt the orchestra wanted to press ahead. The coda,where C major blazes brightly at last was convincingly affirmative andhad there been the benefit of a creative partnership between Schiff anda sympathetic conductor, I daresay the performance might have been morememorable. As it was, sadly, there was often very little more than asense of routine, with the orchestra on auto-pilot – the very last qualities required by Beethoven.

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