The Otto Klemperer Series Concert – 8th July

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.83 in G minor (The Hen)
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andras Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

For the second year running, Andras Schiff is remembering Otto Klemperer, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Principal Conductor between 1959 and 1972. Last year’s Barbican mix of composers is replicated this week, and will continue in October when Bach and Schumann are added.

“In an age of overblown conducting stars, his lack of ego and vanity is all the more remarkable”. Schiff goes on to say that Klemperer’s “humanity, razor-sharp intellect, sense of rhythm, and grasp of form and structure are always in the service of the composer … we must always remember him as a monumental musician”. Indeed.

Schiff doesn’t emulate Klemperer’s rock-hewn, monolithic interpretations; he does though have an innate grasp of architecture and has formed a rather special relationship with the Philharmonia.

As pianist, Schiff has his back to the audience, sitting between antiphonal violins, looking into the woodwind and the four double basses behind them (the piano’s lid is removed); cellos are left-centre – effectively Klemperer’s, and today, Dohnanyi’s layout, albeit their basses are left-positioned. (Schiff has presumably re-thought his divided double basses from last year; it looked odd.)

The closeness between Schiff and the Philharmonia is evident in the chamber dialoguing and complementing that informs every bar played; theirs is a mutual and rewarding trust. Whether Schiff is too self-effacing is arguable – his Beethoven is fleet, ever-thoughtful and wholly discriminating; he eschews gruffness and explosion. He disguised the finale’s ‘Hungarian’ or ‘gypsy-sounding’ episode (to quote the programme notes) so it was less a portent of swing and the night-club (cue Friedrich Gulda for such allusions).

Schiff converses with his fellow musicians, the Philharmonia reciprocate with playing that is light, sensitive, wonderfully together and insightful – not only to the music itself but to Schiff’s particular colours and inflexions, and his sensibilities; equally, he responds to the Philharmonia’s compassion. Good conversation certainly, but might Beethoven have been more forceful, even argumentative, in his contribution?

If rarefied Beethoven loses the composer his down-to-earth expression, such an approach didn’t stop Schiff opting for the biggest and zaniest of Beethoven’s three cadenzas; Schiff cut loose here, but within clearly defined parameters. He did too in Beethoven’s cadenzas for the Mozart, though, in the context of a ‘romantic impression’ of K466 (overt emotionalism eschewed), this shouldn’t be taken as X-certificate pianism. Mozart’s slow movement was beguilingly brought off at a tempo far swifter than the norm; ‘Romanza’ has no tempo indication – Schiff’s ‘Allegretto’ was very convincing. The finale’s piano and woodwind dialoguing will long be remembered; here the intimacy of the drawing-room was suggested as Schiff and friends forgot the large hall and made chamber music.

Whatever doubts Schiff’s pristine and intimate approach may raise in music that is jubilantly out-reaching and explicitly passionate, there’s no doubting his aerated orchestral textures and poetic interplay are delights in themselves, especially when the Philharmonia is so pertinently involved in the discourse; this is an orchestra where individual input and corporate hospitality turn on a sixpence.

As a Haydn conductor, Schiff’s refreshing advocacy of this wondrous music warrants considerable attention. Last year’s symphonies 88 and 95 introduced Schiff as a Haydn interpreter who really appreciates the composer’s genius for imagination and colour. No.83, one of the miraculous ‘Paris’ symphonies, found Schiff tenderly espousing Haydn’s ability to touch nerves with unexpected harmonic twists, as in the slow movement. The first movement’s return to Haydn’s ‘storm and stress’ period was dramatically realised – actually Schiff is a more demonstrative conductor than he is pianist – and the second subject’s ‘clucking’ found Schiff paring-down dynamics and tone to almost nothing. A robust minuet was offset by an enchanting trio, Haydn’s ‘new’ instrument – formed by solo violin and flute – fully relished by James Clark, Ken Smith and the conductor. The finale – far too fast! – was nevertheless brilliantly articulated and interlocked; one wanted more time to savour it.

It’s more of the same this Thursday, 12 July, when Ying Chang will be your Classical Source reviewer. Doubts persist about it all being too considered, too friendly; yet Schiff and the Philharmonia are becoming a hot partnership in which musical subtlety is all and pretension is forbidden. Some of Klemperer’s granite wouldn’t go amiss though.

  • This Thursday, 12 July, in the RFH, Schiff and the Philharmonia play Beethoven’s PC2 and Mozart’s No.21; the Haydn symphony is No.82, The Bear
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4242
  • (no booking fee)
  • 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 Haydn

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