CLASSICAL MUSIC / Schiff: genius on the run

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SOME YEARS ago a record producer was complaining to me about the equivocal values of his industry. He had come across a pianist without glamour or the looks to launch a thousand discs - no showman of the keyboard - who just happened to possess the greatest musical intelligence my friend had ever encountered. And could he sell this pianist to his marketing department? Could he hell.

It seemed at the time an intractable problem. But the pianist was Andras Schiff; and his subsequent rise to star billing on the international piano circuit is reassuring proof that audiences are not so stupid as marketing men suppose. Last weekend the big event of the Edinburgh Festival was his cycle of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos with Bernard Haitink and the LPO; and, squeezed into two concerts, they sold out.

Three concerti in one evening is a daunting prospect, and may explain why, when the cycle started with the easy-going No 2 (the first, in fact, that Beethoven composed), there were some rare lapses of concentration from Schiff - as well as misjudgements from Haitink in tackling the old, old problem of sealing the join between solo statements and orchestral tutti: usually a matter of catching the pianist at the right moment in a scalic run. Schiff proved persistently hard to catch.

But that said, Haitink's measured sense of shape, proportion and dynamic and the LPO's responsive playing more than won the day. And as for Schiff, it wasn't just the purity of the piano sound or the clarity of its cushioned staccato that won but the subtle way he redraws the relationship between piano and orchestra. One of the Edinburgh Festival exhibitions - Monet to Matisse at the National Gallery of Scotland - considers the difference between two kinds of imaginary landscape with human interest: paysage compose where the figures decorate the context, and paysage historique where the context decorates the figures. Classical concerti straddle both; and Schiff negotiates his way between historique and compose with a certainty that claims or yields the focus of attention with the deftness of a butler. Cool, unflustered, knowing when to speak and, even silent, in complete control.

What you don't get from playing Beethoven concerti on a modern Steinway is a sense of how they progressively outstretch the instruments they were written for. Keyboard hardware developed rapidly in Beethoven's time, and the sort of piano required for No 5 was heavier and richer than its predecessors that more or less accommodated No 2.

But the other Beethoven cycle running at Edinburgh - the symphonies - has incorporated period performance, sharing the load between different orchestras; and No 9 went to the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra with Charles Mackerras, who has long been a propagandist for Beethoven's metronome marks in the score. Most conductors ignore them on the grounds that they are generally too fast to make musical sense, and can't be what Beethoven meant. The Romantic school of conductors liked their Beethoven solemn, and they set an enduring precedent. But you can square faster tempi if you carry the pulse of the music across the barlines, allocating one emphasis to a bar instead of two or four. That way it becomes less frantic, and still a great deal more exhilarating than at the traditional pace.

Mackerras, though, doesn't take the implications of the metronome marks to their logical conclusion, and the result is fairly pedestrian. I'm bound to say I wasn't wholly thrilled by this performance, which seemed blunt-edged, with a limited dynamic range and less than clean articulation. But I liked the March in the finale which, with the re-ordered balance of old instruments, profiles the splash of high, bright, clipped percussion you associate with Janissary music. It becomes a toy piece, bouncing along on little, suppressed eruptions of flatulence from the wind section. Enchanting.

Back in London, the Proms saw the first appearance of London Sinfonietta's new Principal Conductor Markus Stenz, a young German who I remember enthusing about two years ago when he took over a batch of concerts in the Montepulciano Festival at short notice and carried them off superbly. His Prom was a late-night job devoted to atmospheric pieces that exploited the spatial possibilities of the Albert Hall, and was well played. But it wasn't a conductor's showcase. We'll have to wait on the next Sinfonietta own-promotion for that.

Meanwhile, the Proms highlight has been the visit of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: two visits, in fact, with Esa- Pekka Salonen who is just finishing his second season as the Philharmonic's MD. And if ever there was a case of an orchestra striking instant rapport with its audience, this was it. By the second concert they were on first-name terms. The promenaders shouted and the players shouted back, did little dances, and a violinist made a speech about his many happy years of playing with the band. All very curious, though it's probably what happens nightly at the Hollywood Bowl.

But what counted was that the orchestra played very beautifully, with a sleek, silvery substance to the strings and soft- edged radiance that bathed Hindemith's Mathis der Maler on Thursday in a halo of sound. Correspondingly, there wasn't much bite in the attack. The polyphony of Bruckner's 3rd Symphony was sluggish, which may be to do with Salonen's stick technique, with beats that tend to start behind his neck. If he's not careful he'll stab himself in the back.

But there can be no doubt that Salonen has changed things at Los Angeles for the better. His Sibelius 2 on Tuesday had a glistening purity with finely cultivated brass: no blistering American macho here. And the encore that followed, from Ravel's Mother Goose, was four minutes of heaven: immaculately balanced and, again, that radiant string sound. As Benjamin Britten used to say of things that seriously impressed him: Cor]

(Photograph omitted)

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