EDINBURGH FESTIVAL Philharmonia Orchestra / Kurt Sanderling, Usher Hall

Andras Schiff's double dose of the Brahms piano concertos was disconcertingly whimsical, lacking his usual conviction or heroics.
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The Independent Culture
Playing both the Brahms piano concertos in a single concert should be like a musical Charge of the Light Brigade: unwise, pointless, but heroic. The two works are radically different from each other, the first immature and patchy, the second autumnal, expansive, benign.

The pianist Andras Schiff is a great one for heroic vanities. This time, however, he came unstuck. There was an absent-minded air about the whole performance, as though he had learnt the notes but was still deciding what to do with them. Phrases lurched and buckled as he tried to poke them into shape; bravura passages were picked out stiffly.

The First Concerto started incredibly slowly, as if the conductor, Kurt Sanderling, were trying to revamp the opening as a slow movement. The strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra - sounding sparse after the super- orchestras we have heard in the Usher Hall recently - were unable to launch the piece with any conviction, and Schiff played whimsically, never uncovering any structural bones. He had a disconcerting way of going suddenly pensive when the excitement needed to sustain and grow; the earnest finale was played as a lilting dance measure, yet even the solid pizzicato of the cellos could lend it no life. This piece is not Brahms at his best, but it has a certain nobility that was lost on this occasion. It sounded like an Albumblatt.

In the Second Concerto, Schiff was again more interested in dance measures than in the ceremonial grandeur of the piece, but his playing was more nimble, and at last Sanderling and the orchestra found some kind of symphonic spirit, the magical insinuations of the opening theme - in the development, and again in the recapitulation - making their stealthy formal points.

There was some symphonic splendour in the student songs of the scherzo, too, though Schiff chose a leisurely tempo that deprived this movement of its heavy equestrian swing.

Even on a dim night, the Philharmonia always pull something out of the bag. This time it was a fathomlessly touching, vulnerable cello solo in the slow movement, full of pathos and regret, velvety yet a little resinous in tone. Schiff stopped injecting caprice into the phrases, and his meditative arpeggios underlined the long, still vistas of this enthralling poem.

There was some froth in the finale, but the pianist's empty dalliance returned. Heroic it was not; this was a lightweight performance, closing a distinctly undernourished concert.