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Sir András Schiff [Photo © Nadia F. Romanini]
05 Jul 2018

‘Schiff’s Surprise’: Haydn

Many of the ingredients for a memorable concert were there, or so they initially seemed to be. Alas, ultimately what we learned more clearly than anything else was that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new Principal Artist, András Schiff, is no conductor.

‘Schiff’s Surprise’: Haydn

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Sir András Schiff [Photo © Nadia F. Romanini]

 

It is not clear that he is much of a pianist any more either. The latter surprised me: not because my recent encounters with him in the concert hall had been positive, far from it, but because various friends had thought highly of his recent turn to the fortepiano. (He has long played older instruments as well as the modern piano, but seems to be doing so rather more at the moment.) When one of them lent me a CD of Schiff playing Schubert on a period instrument, I shared some of that enthusiasm. The deathly seriousness of his recent piano playing, often not helped by bizarre programming more suited to recording of box sets than to the concert hall, seemed to be gone. Schiff seemed liberated by the possibilities, rather than restricted by the shortcomings, of the older instrument. Whether that were due to recording trickery, or whether this concert were an off-day, I do not know. However, I could not help but think that the other musicians would often have made a better show of things without him (and with another soloist).

Each of the three works on the evening’s programme opened with great promise, the introduction to the Surprise Symphony’s first movement dark with potentiality. (The Creation’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ was not itself an act of creatio ex nihilo; it is inconceivable without Haydn’s symphonic introductions.) That came from the players, though, Schiff’s conducting either ineffectual or restrictively four-square. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly to those more closely acquainted with the period-instrument scene, the willingness of the OAE’s players truly to play out, rather than to condescend to Haydn, had them sound closer to performances by the likes of Eugen Jochum or Colin Davis than to many more recent ones. Alas, however, the lack of formal dynamism and even control of the players soon made for a wearing experience. The Andante was on the fast side, yet far from unreasonably so. Otherwise it was business as usual: the more Sturm und Drang passages sounded magnificent in their way – they would have done still more so with a larger band – yet unduly regimented. The scherzo had Schwung, for which one could overlook a few too many intonational lapses. Soon, it became a bit too same-y, though: where was the development? Such was still more the case for its trio and for a merely hectic finale.

If the D major Piano Concerto opened with somewhat mannered string articulation, such is often the way now. I have heard far worse – whether from modern or period instruments. Quite why Schiff sometimes played continuo and sometimes did not is anyone’s guess. He certainly made things far worse as soloist, his phrasing often barely worthy of the word. Balance between the hands was sometimes straightforwardly odd; there is, of course, a greater difference between registers on such an instrument, but even so. His cadenza, based upon the Symphony’s Andante was thought hilarious by some, but they had reacted similarly the first time around too. In the slow movement, Schiff struggled to form a cantabile phrase at all, let alone to shape it meaningfully. The OAE was much better, needless to say. Episodes in the finale were weirdly unconnected; I was quite shocked how little harmonic understanding was on show here. Surely Schiff used to be better than that? The audience loved it, though, and was rewarded with an encore of the entire movement.

The introduction to the ‘Kyrie’ of the Harmoniemesse, surely one of Haydn’s very grandest, indeed awe-inspiring passages, sang with all the promise, perhaps even more, of that to the Symphony. Even here, though Schiff’s phrasing was often pedantic; the less he did, the better. Grainy woodwind reminded us why this mass has the nickname it does. Vocal quartet and choir alike offered consummately professional singing, often rather more than that: beautiful, if not especially mitteleuropäisch in style. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with an ‘English’ performance of Haydn: better that than unconvincing ventriloquism.

The ‘Gloria’ began, as many of the movements – I know we should not really call them that, but never mind – did, at a surprisingly slow tempo. I have nothing against that, quite the contrary, but much of it was a bit of a trudge. Charlotte Beament’s bell-like soprano was attractive here and throughout. The ‘Gratias’ section sounded too fast: more likely in relation to what had gone before than intrinsically. Indeed, proportional tempi were notable only by their absence. That said, nothing here can really mask the vigour and rigour of Haydn’s thematic working out; if that is not ‘symphonic’, then I do not know what out. Moreover, nothing did mask it. A four-square conclusion was less than overflowing with joy.

There was an old-fashioned Handelian sturdiness to the opening of the ‘Credo’: far from out of place, necessarily, in Haydn’s evocation of the Church as Rock of St Peter. Without greater forward impetus, though, such an approach will sound merely staid, as it did here. If you are going to adopt a Klemperer-like tempo – what it might have been to have heard him conduct this mass! – then it may help actually to be Klemperer, or at least more of a conductor than Schiff. Gorgeous woodwind in the central section, ‘Et incarnatus…’, was alas, supplanted, by increasingly wayward solo noises from ‘Ex resurrexit’ onwards. That would have mattered less, had there been more in the way of formal and/or theological insight from Schiff. Alas, it was by now clear that such would not be forthcoming.

The ‘Sanctus’ was spacious and less static, Schiff’s slow tempo notwithstanding. It too, however, was blighted by too much dodgy woodwind playing. Perhaps the players were tiring; it certainly sounded like it. It was no bad thing in the circumstances to have a swift ‘Benedictus’, although it verged perhaps on the silly. Nicely imploring invocations of the Lamb of God, as much orchestral as choral, gave way to bizarrely heavy, joyless cries of ‘Dona nobis pacem’. A pity.

Mark Berry


Programme:

Symphony no.94 in G major, ‘Surprise’; Piano Concerto no.11 in D major, Hob.XVIII/11; Harmoniemesse in B-flat major, Hob.XXII:14. Charlotte Beament (soprano); Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano); Nick Pritchard (tenor); Dingle Yandell (bass). Choir of the Enlightenment/Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment/András Schiff (fortepiano, conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Wednesday 4 July 2018.

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