Music

Beethoven Piano Concertos Andras Schiff / Philharmonia Royal Festival Hall, London

His playing can be either delicate as porcelain or bold as brass; he can tease, storm, sing or hold his listeners captive with a rapt pianissimo. In fact, Andras Schiff's catalogue of pianistic effects is so wide-ranging, so potentially eventful, that audience approval is more or less guaranteed. And Saturday night's Royal Festival Hall gathering was certainly no exception: come the final flourish of Beethoven's G major Concerto, and the aisles were crammed with fans bellowing for an elusive encore. Schiff himself seemed elated but relieved. He had after all braved a three-lap Beethoven marathon, with the youthful B flat (known as the Second Concerto, but really the first) preceding two big masterpieces, the defiant Third and - beyond an interval - the calmer, more decorative Fourth. Kurt Sanderling's warm-toned Philharmonia accompaniments were "centrally" Beethovenian in the truest sense of that much-abused term - lean, muscular and with an acute sense of musical line. Schiff sloped into the Second Concerto on just a hint of rubato, then engaged his habitually beautiful tone for an easily-breathing Allegro con brio and much left-hand point-making. It was an eventful but somewhat fussily tended affair, with a doggedly over-stated cadenza. Sanderling made maximum capital of the Adagio's serene opening measures and the ensuing exchanges were eloquently voiced, whereas the jaunty Rondo bore incident in virtually every bar, most of it either contrapuntal or colouristic and very much in line with what we already know of Schiff's Bach, Mozart and Schubert.

The Third Concerto opened to a finely structured orchestral tutti - a little clipped perhaps, but never overstated. Here Schiff passed on the frills and toughened his act for some fairly gritty dialogue, although the cadenza again witnessed wildly quivering jowls and a certain degree of rhetorical overkill. The Largo inspired numerous pretty observations but although the Rondo was nicely inflected, the actual coda could have been even crisper, more witty. However, by now I was beginning to tire at what seemed more a superficial striving for the effect than inward conviction; I longed for something simpler, stronger, more direct and less reliant on the powder and paint of pianistic cosmetics. Schiff held lovingly to the first chord of the Fourth Concerto, a telling augury of what lay in store - a sight-seers survey, guiding us every note of the way with jabbing left-hand emphases, numerous instances of exquisite tonal sculpture but too much interpretative waffle. Even Sanderling's gruff opening to the Andante con motto - swift, scalding and unceremonious though it was - seemed something of a failed admonition: Schiff's entrance was minutely, maddeningly delayed, a coquettish ploy going proxy for humbling prayer. The finale was more elegant than exuberant but very much "of a piece" with what we'd heard all evening: tasteful playing to the gallery (Schiff would occasionally gesture towards the stalls, his eyes closed) and pianistic mastery par excellence but a far cry from the torment and ultimate triumph that underpin the Third and Fourth Concertos in particular. It was simply too civilised.

n Andras Schiff plays Beethoven's First and Fifth Piano Concertos, RFH (0171-928 8800) on 11 Oct

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