Philharmonia/Segal András Schiff

Symphony No. 93 in D
Divertimento for Strings
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op.33

András Schiff (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Uri Segal

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 December, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s final London subscription concert of 2005 should have featured András Schiff as conductor as well as pianist. However, he was suffering from “exhaustion” and made way for the Israeli conductor Uri Segal, an infrequent visitor to London these days but previously associated with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the advertised programme being unchanged; fortunately so, as these pieces afforded numerous and fascinating contrasts in their juxtaposition. (Segal also conducted the previous QEH performance of this concert, on the 17th.)

Haydn’s Symphony No.93 (nominally the first of the ‘London’ Symphonies but the third of the six written for the composer’s first London residency of 1791-2) is less often heard at concerts than its immediate successors, but has claims – along with No.97 – to being the most perfectly proportioned of the ‘London dozen’. Not that this performance made the strongest case: Segal seemed unwilling to bring out the Adagio introduction’s tonal ambiguity, such that the main Allegro was left expressively becalmed and short on wit, while the finale was rhythmically precise but lacking the necessary effervescence. More convincing were the Largo – its initially whimsical theme allowed to gather considerable gravitas over the variations that follow, but with the bassoon pay-off puncturing any false pathos – and a minuet which rises to the military-style fanfares of its trio section as if in an expressive apex.

From Haydn the naturalised Hungarian to Bartók the personification of modern Hungarian culture is not so great a step, especially when the latter is represented by the Divertimento that he composed as the storm-clouds of war gathered over Europe towards the end of 1938. Segal was unfailingly responsive to the aggressive unison gestures that increasingly undermine the vigorous Classicism of the first movement, here made attractively playful, and effected the Andante’s central crescendo of terror with near-perfect poise if not the most cathartic of climaxes. Earlier in this movement a sense of unease had been made palpable through very sensitive and very quiet playing. Maybe the folk-inflections of the finale were a touch inhibited, but with the ‘concertino’ group alive to the many formal and expressive puns thrown its way, and with some deft changes of tempo (especially the turn into the fugue), the seal was decisively set on an account that did justice to a work underestimated in the context of Bartók’s mature output even if, here, slightly undermined by Segal’s heavy-handed sense of humour.

Schiff duly emerged after the interval for a rare performance of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto. Not a work by which even the composer – a competent but cautious pianist – was convinced, and which has undergone extensive alterations to the solo part (notably by Vilem Kurz) since completion in 1876. Yet it has attracted a notable group of adherents: Sviatoslav Richter comes to mind, while Schiff has now performed the piece on numerous occasions.

The programme-book failed to identify which version Schiff was using. A few textural variants – most likely of his own choosing – aside, Schiff stuck closely to what Dvořák wrote and ensured the treble-orientated piano writing (not for nothing has it been called a concerto for a pianist with two right hands!) was integrated most securely into the most diaphanous orchestral texture which Dvořák had thus far composed. Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto hovers behind the formal ground-plan, especially that of the imposing if discursive first movement, but Grieg and Mendelssohn make their respective presence felt in the soulful Andante – here made rather Chopinesque and a little too plush orchestrally – and energetic finale. The Czech folk-music derivation of the concerto’s melodies may be easy to overstate, but not the subtlety with which Dvořák effects their symphonic coherence; especially when Schiff endowed them with such finesse, reverie, whimsicality, affection and ease of execution. The Philharmonia brought warmth and poetry, even if Segal’s conducting was somewhat ‘head down’, and made a very strong case for this unfairly neglected work.

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