Prom 49: COE & Schiff in Harmony

Suite No.3 in D major, BWV 1068
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat
Symphony No.88 in G major

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
András Schiff (piano)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 26 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe must be one of the finest bodies of its kind in the world. It boasts splendid players who respond in true chamber-music fashion to one another. They breathe and bow together as one and make an immaculate sound. And yet there is perhaps a danger of a lack of spontaneity, not altogether avoided in this programme. I felt the need for a little more daring, even some ’rough edges’ at times. Maybe this almost ’manufactured’ sound was what András Schiff was striving for. In any event, the orchestra responded wholeheartedly to his direction and everyone was clearly enjoying themselves.

Nowadays to hear Bach’s orchestral music played on ’modern’ instruments is rare indeed and the orchestra’s beauty of tone was a pleasure. What was downright perverse, however, was Schiff’s decision to direct the Suite from the piano, its incongruous timbre in this music sounded frankly silly at times, especially since the orchestra was clearly adopting a ’period’ style. This included the mannerism of slight ’swells’ on sustained notes that I found extremely irritating after a short while. Fussy dynamics were also employed to unnecessary effect. Bach’s lines are quite capable of being expressive without such interference. The famous melody of the ’Air’ was subjected to all sorts of strange crescendos and diminuendos. An odd performance, overall, and in terms of general style the word which suggests itself is ’hybrid’.

Things were much surer-footed in the Beethoven that Schiff played extraordinarily well – not a note was out of place. This was very much a ’classical’ performance, as well it might be given the Haydn and Mozart models Beethoven was following in this comparatively early work. The first movement began briskly – it settled down somewhat with the entry of the piano – and the excursions into the key of D-flat were suitably pointed, with hushed string tone. In the ’Adagio’, the rapport between all the players was evident. The flute and oboe solos were superbly played, and the sense of dialogue – communing, even – between soloist and orchestra was wonderful. The ending was magical – ruined by loud coughing. The ’Finale’ truly danced along, with Schiff dashing off scalic passages and figuration without turning a hair. What a marvellous concerto this is, and this performance was fully worthy of it.

Janacek’s Capriccio is a strange work and perhaps sat rather awkwardly in this particular programme. Scored for solo piano, trumpets, trombones, euphonium and flute, the players are all very exposed but after a slightly tentative start, the quirkiness of Janacek’s invention could be appreciated. Strangely enough, although scored for the least number of players, this was the one piece where a separate conductor might have helped. Schiff was not always able to give clear directions for some of the tricky entries. The mercurial mood of much of the fast music alternates with more eloquent and expressive moments, with the flute – outstandingly played – to the fore. These shifts of gear were effectively managed and the exultant brass writing towards the conclusion reminds that this piece dates from the same year (1926) as Janacek’s Sinfonietta.

Haydn’s ebullient Symphony No.88 was given a fine performance, but here I would have liked a more ’earthy’, less manicured approach. To be sure, every phrase was neatly turned and the overall ensemble perfect and yet some of Haydn’s wit seemed lacking. Again, the wind solos provided particular pleasure in the slow movement, whilst the folk-influenced ’Trio’ which looks forward to Mahler in ländler mode found the playersrelishing the mis-placed accents. The ’Finale’ was bubbly and brought the work to a suitably rollicking conclusion.

One of my neighbours who throughout the evening kindly provided a commentary during the music and between movements and pieces remarked “that was jolly”. Indeed.We were then treated to an encore. Schiff returned to the piano – now to the side of the orchestra – and allowed the flautist to take centre-stage for the final two movements of Bach’s B minor Suite (No.2), with the ’Minuet’ poised and limpid and the ’Badinerie’ taken at an extraordinary lick, replete with added ornaments. Such abandon as was on display here would not have gone amiss at other points during the evening.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 29 August, at 2 o’clock

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