Andras Schiff/Philharmonia Royal Festival Hall, London: Mozart mastered with baton and keys

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
To play, and conduct from the keyboard, Mozart's last six piano concertos in two concerts within one week is pretty impressive. And Andras Schiff did it from memory. He had the lid off the piano, sat with his back to the audience, and when he wasn't playing he really did conduct, not just supplying the odd gesture, but cueing, encouraging and shaping, all while staying seated. When one hand was free, he used the other, leaving little to chance. The piano sounded surprisingly clear, even though numbers in the orchestra weren't greatly reduced, and Schiff's rapport with them was excellent - the Philharmonia played warmly, enjoying themselves. Schiff did not join in the opening tuttis, like a continuo player, as Mozart is known to have done, but in certain passages with everyone together he did make a point of bringing out his simple bass line in the left hand as if to underpin the whole ensemble - that was something he might not have done if there had been a separate conductor. Still, it made a change, and freshened up what you might have taken for granted.

Hearing one artist so intensely exposed, you soon get to know the sort of thing he's likely to do. A large number of Schiff fans probably know already, particularly in London, where he appears a lot. Presumably they like his brand of "gallant" formality and characteristic "g'dunk" as the left hand goes down just before the right. In the E flat Concerto, K482, Schiff made his solos markedly freer than passages with orchestra, and sometimes he laid on the artistry with a trowel. On the other hand, he was matter-of-fact and sometimes too brisk in busy, brilliant music, and his tempo in the finale of K482 was so fast it made woodwind figures into a streamlined slither and pushed piano ripples to the brink of discomfort. The A major Concerto, K488, ended with an accelerando that was imposed unnecessarily, and it's rare to hear Schiff get as bullish as he did in Mozart's first movement cadenza.

When it came to filling in the gaps that Mozart left to individual taste, Schiff wasn't, by today's scholarly standards, always in the very first league of stylish enterprise. But at least he supplied his own lead-ins and cadenzas where Mozart's haven't survived, and with some success. His cadenza for the first movement of the C minor Concerto, K491, began boldly with two of the main themes and then stampeded in a flurry of technical bravura. His cadenza for the first movement of K482 relied too much on a modulatory passage heard earlier in the movement. At the end of the slow movement of K488, Schiff didn't attempt to fill out the skeletal outline of Mozart's piano part, nor did his modest adherence to the very bare surviving text feel like emotion too deep for notes - Schiff's Mozart has both feet firmly on the ground.

On Thursday night the comparatively plain and formal C major Concerto, K503, found him in his element. His own cadenza for the first movement managed to be both grand and witty, striking a military mood towards the end, a gambit he used again effectively in his first movement cadenza, for the "Coronation" Concerto, K537. On the whole, this second concert was more satisfying than the first, because less in the way of poetic depth needed revealing. The simplicity of Mozart's last concerto, K595, has sometimes been seen as a prescient elegy for the composer's final year, and its first performance was the last time Mozart played a concerto in public, but that didn't prompt Schiff to droop pathetically, and what we got was sensible but not insensitive.

Comments