Andras Schiff/ Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall, London<br></br>Sonnerie, Wigmore Hall, London

A squirrel by any other name
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The Independent Culture

Authentic and authoritative or cold and arch? Andras Schiff divides opinions like no other pianist except, perhaps, Alfred Brendel. Yet the qualities in his playing that some find so attractive and others so repugnant are, I would argue, the very same. And as symphony orchestras grow ever more wary of playing classical repertoire and their gut string colleagues encroach on Mahler, who else would choose to direct Mendelssohn's piano concertos from a lidless Steinway at the Royal Festival Hall? In an age where the musician is popularly seen as a vessel, Schiff is an auteur.

But can an auteur play chamber music on such a large scale with any success? Schiff is no Robert Levin - a player tall enough to communicate with a nod of the head - and the Philharmonia is a bigger, brighter band than the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, Mendelssohn's G minor Piano Concerto does not follow the statement/response protocol of most concertos of the early Romantic period, which means a great deal of bouncing up and down on the piano stool. So it's much to the credit of the Philharmonia that Tuesday's performance of this quasi-fantasia remained as coherent as it did. Too delicate and well brought-up a piece for the melodramatic self-regard of gothick sensibility, decent affability prevails in its scoring; whether in the forthright comments of the clarinet or the earnest warmth of the andante viola melody. And though doing two things at the same time did little to bring the best out of Schiff's idiosyncratic conducting - always a squirrelly affair - or his unevenly articulated, sometimes brittle playing, this was a beautifully prepared orchestral performance: authentic in spirit, if not in sound, and with uniformly sensitive solos from the principal flute (Kenneth Smith), clarinet (Barnaby Robson) and oboe (Christopher Cowie).

With no piano in front of him Schiff looked somewhat bereft in the Haydn and Mozart Symphonies, which he coloured and phrased, perhaps predictably, like the piano sonatas of each composer. One early cue aside, there was neither anything particularly wrong nor anything particularly right about his conducting. This was not interrogational, inspirational music making of the sort you'd get from a Norrington or a Bruggen, but neither did it sound memorialised. And with Maya Iwabuchi leading, the sound of the first violins - often the weak spot in this otherwise superbly blended orchestra - had that soft, fresh, rosy glow that gives its sound such a distinctive identity. The contact and exchange between each section was faultless: true chamber music, regardless of the size of the band or the auteur in front of it.

The life of Sir John Clerk of Pennicuik - 2nd Baronet, composer, poet, pupil of Corelli, veteran of the Grand Tour, "judge and gentleman" - reads like the pitch for one of those sumptuous baroque bio-pics the French love to make: a Farinelli or Le Roi Danse or Tous les matins du monde, which last, you may recall, transformed the profiles of Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. Judging from the modest audience at Sonnerie's excellently played Wigmore Hall performance of Clerk's Five Cantatas this Monday, the Hollywood effect would be most welcome. Dougray Scott as Clerk? Al Pacino as Corelli? I wonder. Back in the real world we enjoyed the somewhat homelier charms of Bill Paterson, who was roped in to declaim verses from Clerk's pastoral poetry and to provide a break from the singing. Did we need it? In the case of Lorna Anderson's lugubrious accounts of the Buxtehude-like Eheu! quam diris hominis and Scarlatti-esque Miserere mei we certainly did. In Mhairi Lawson's sparkling performance of Leo Scotiae irritatus - a gloriously florid cantata on Scottish supremacy - and the Carissimi-like Odo di mesto intorno we did not. Lawson is a gorgeous natural performer: sensitive to the phrasing of her fellow musicians, and, with prosecco-scented top notes that hit you like a shower of confetti and sunshine, a perfect ambassadress for this charming repertoire. Hollywood notwithstanding, music such as Clerk's will never make for a capacity audience but sometimes a best-kept-secret is exactly what you want to hear.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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