Andras Schiff/Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

Some musicians become so much a part of the furniture that we take them for granted.

One such is Andras Schiff, and though we’ve seen an extraordinary mellowing in his persona over the last twenty years – from the anxious young pianist with the don’t-touch-me manner to the genially greying Viennese gent of today – he’s lost none of his political spikiness. Describing himself as ‘a Jew born in Hungary’, rather than a Hungarian Jew, and regarding his own birth as a miracle - given the Hungarians’ strenuous efforts to kill his parents - he’s now so exercised by his native land’s oppression of its Gypsies that he recently questioned its suitability to take on the presidency of the European Union. He doubts if he will play there again.

Since he’s made his home in London we get a lot of him, but it’s never too much: his famous phobias (dodgy pianos, bad acoustics, flash virtuosity) are just the flipside to his Olympian Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert. And those who packed the Royal Festival Hall for this concert had come to witness a typical piece of Schiffian multi-tasking.

Brahms’s ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’ employs many of the weapons in the jazzman’s armoury, including syncopated rhythms, a walking bass, and a series of wild improvisational riffs; under Schiff’s benign direction these elements shone brightly. A coaxing look and minimal sculpting gestures with his hand were all it took for the work to take wing; Haydn’s valedictory ‘Symphony No 104’, which followed, was gracefully turned and infused with sunny energy.

The piece de resistance was Beethoven’s ‘Piano Concerto No 4’, in which Schiff combined the functions of soloist and conductor. This sort of thing can easily become a parade of pianistic control-freakery: though Beethoven himself directed this concerto from the piano, its complex layering would seem to demand a conductor’s all-seeing eye. Yet somehow Schiff worked the miracle - I have seldom heard this work’s drama more brilliantly realised. As he played it, there was authority in every bar, no matter how soft; the piano-orchestra tussle of the middle movement serenely encompassed heaven and hell. For an encore he played Schubert’s ‘Hungarian Melody’, and thus led us sweetly home.

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