The Otto Klemperer Series – Concert 12th July

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.82 in C (The Bear)
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andras Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 12 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Think of any great pianist and it’s usually easy to think what characterises any one’s interpretative-characteristics and soundworld. Pollini might be considered aristocratic and aloof, Perahia poetic, Uchida emotional (hypersensitive even). What do you think when considering Andras Schiff? Nothing, I would suggest. Of course, his aims are clear-cut; he brings lucidity and a fidelity to what the composer wrote and apparently intended – all qualities that let the music speak for itself. All this was true at this Philharmonia Orchestra concert – which confirmed Schiff’s strengths and weaknesses.

Schiff chose to play these pieces not in terms of chronology, but in order of increasing intellectual weight. In some ways, this was also true of how satisfying the performances were. Schiff is a pianist of transparency, not of illusion. The anti-showman, he uses no sleight of hand, no alchemy, to woo the listener; it is his design to display to its best advantage what is already there. This is why he is so admired as a Bach pianist – he plays with complete intellectual clarity, yet without losing emotional intimacy.

It seems quite fashionable these days to play this concert’s repertoire as if it was from a later period. Certainly, Schiff’s first, measured entry in the Beethoven proclaimed the work seriousness, to see in it a pre-figuration of Beethoven’s middle-period gravity and heroism. Similarly, the chorale-like opening of the slow movement was especially successful. But it is not always enough to understand the music sympathetically. I cannot fault Schiff’s almost Mozartian precision of phrasing, or his alternation of the lyric with the dramatic, or his flawless technique, or his control of the orchestra. And yet, it was a performance well-shaped rather than well-integrated, the finale brisk rather than passionate, sometimes neat, even over-finished, rather than heaven-storming. At times in the first movement the music became almost static, as if physically changing gear between sections. At the end of the slow movement, where the piano plays tri-patterns above the strings’ theme, there was no attempt to make the peculiarity of this episode more intelligible.

Perhaps, if Schiff’s great virtue is his faithfulness to the written text, and his humility of interpretation, he is at his best in pieces that are themselves fully mature, profound and finished. It was revealing how engaged Schiff was in the big first movement cadenza, which Beethoven wrote much later, its greater intellectual weight Schiff made no attempt to disguise.

In the end, I was left wondering how so perfect and polished a performance, which lacked nothing in thoughtfulness or commitment, could so obviously have something missing. Perhaps it’s the ’early’ nature of the piece itself – of all the concertos it’s the most flawed – to which Schiff made no concessions. On the other hand, the very fact that Schiff was also directing from the keyboard removed the possibility of a more antagonistic relationship between soloist and orchestra, the sense of another strong personality – one more heroic – to contrast with Schiff.

In Haydn, the mixture of court and country, ballroom minuet and gypsy-bear dance was well conveyed. The first movement was warm, to the point of tenderness for the lyrical second subject, the orchestra precise and responsive, if lacking the last degree of either finesse or characterisation. Schiff is particularly good at shaping the ends of sections or movements, rousing himself to greater sensibility or passion at such moments. One might especially note the perfect civility and poise at the end of the ’trio’ section of the ’Minuet’, the martially exact and rousing close to the first movement, and the interplay of strings and wind that brought the finale to a progressively more intense conclusion.

It was, overall, a warm and civilised performance, and wholly idiomatic; though it still lacked a certain intensity – on this evidence, Schiff still has some way to go before he can attain the heights of his great Hungarian compatriot Haydn conductors, Dorati and Solti.

In the Mozart concerto, the doubts of the first half were triumphantly resolved. From Schiff’s first solo entry there was a far more satisfying sense of the whole – not simply of dialogue between soloist and orchestra – but of true integration.Schiff’s characteristically serious approach to the piece was a nice counterbalance to its overtly cheerful character, and in a piece so very familiar, his meticulous playing allowed one to stop and think, and hear the music afresh. The slow movement, in particular, was played as seamless weaves between piano and orchestra, Schiff veering to the severe, the orchestra more yielding.

Again, one could not help wondering if it was the quality of the music itself that was the decisive influence, which gave Schiff his opportunity to do what he does best – bringing out what is already there. In a piece so rich and dense, Schiff’s honesty and integrity was ideal.

In the last movement, he was almost Beethovenian in his playing, reminding us of an emotional depth that the sunny brightness of the movement can make us forget. The solo entry in the first episode was especially impressive, but the finest moment came at the coda – an enchanting, light, staccato passage before the final tutti, when Schiff showed his palette does indeed contain magical colours.

  • Schiff and the Philharmonia appear at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – Cosi fan tutte, Bach piano concertos and more! 13-17 August
  • The Otto Klemperer Series returns to the RFH on October 4 and 9 – Schiff plays concertos by Beethoven and Schumann, and conducts Bach and HaydnBox Office: 020 7960 4242
  • (no booking fee)

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