Monday, March 4, 2019

Sir Andras Schiff and the Seattle Symphony

Sir Andras Schiff spent this last week in Seattle, conducting and playing with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, as well as giving a solo recital. I missed Sir Andras’ solo recital, but I had the pleasure of attending his appearance with the orchestra. 

The concert opened with J. S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 3 in D major, BWV 1054, a reworking of the composer’s Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042. It is apparent in this concerto how much the period instrument practice has seeped into performances with modern instruments. The strings played with minimal vibrato, and there was a lightness in the string playing that kept the musical line taut and buoyant. Schiff’s playing was, not surprising, a marvel to behold. In the faster passages, every note is beautiful and expressive, like a precious pearl within a perfect string of pearl. The lightness of his playing matched that of his colleagues in the orchestra. In the slow movement (Adagio e sempre piano), I was amazed at the beautiful legato and the sound he was able to achieve without any use of pedal (I sat on Row 1). The third movement (Allegro) was filled with a joyful spirit that this music calls for. Throughout the performance (and even in the performance of the Beethoven concerto), Schiff almost subsumed the sound of the piano within the texture of the orchestra, making it almost like a piano obbligato. This, for me, is concerto playing at its finest, a sort of glorified chamber music.

Equally memorable was Schiff and the orchestra’s presentation of Beethoven’s miraculous Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 – a Dionysian presentation of one of Beethoven’s most Dionysian works. The piano playing was expressive and expansive. It was not a Toscanini-like metronomic Steeplechase, but more of a Bruno Walter, stopping-along-the-way-to-smell-the-flowers approach to this great work. Schiff took time to let the music speak for itself. The opening phrase of the 1stmovement had a recitative-like, confiding quality to it. Throughout the movement, I was reminded of the beauty of Beethoven’s writing for the winds, especially the bassoon. At six measures after letter H, the piano playing had an extra depth of feeling, almost an ecstatic quality to it. Schiff is a conductor who reminds us that conducting really involves the power of suggestion. He coaxes rather than demands in his approach to directing the orchestra. As in the performance of the Bach, Schiff did not come off as the “famous soloist” playing against the orchestra, but integrated his playing within the orchestral texture. It was only during the cadenza that he rid himself of the orchestral shackles and allowed his considerable virtuosity to shine through.

In the slow movement, Schiff set a tempo a little faster than most performers, with sharper articulation in the strings. This is actually in line with the composer’s Andante con motomarking, con motobeing the operative word here. That said, there was no lacking in tension or tautness in the music; there was, however, very much a sense of forward motion – it was a perfect balance between the horizontal and vertical aspects of this music. I appreciated the space Schiff allowed between each orchestral outburst and the piano entry. The long passage of trill at the end of the movement was filled with urgency and a pleading quality, an appropriate contrast with the silence that followed.

I had always thought that this particular Beethoven concerto could not do without a full-time conductor. Well, Schiff and the orchestra obviously rehearsed this work very well, because the ensemble between pianist and orchestra, as well as all those tricky entrances, was done to perfection. This was especially apparent in the 3rdmovement. I liked the way Schiff played all the sforzandonotes in the right hand (the passage at Letter A, for instance), giving it a feeling of surprise, but never forced or hammered. 

At the end of the Beethoven, soloist and orchestra received a deservedly rousing ovation from the audience, whereupon he returned with Menuet I and IIas well as the Giguefrom Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825. Schiff’s brief performance was musical in every note, as light and breathtaking as one could hope for, and he really highlights the quirkiness of Bach’s melodic writing. 

Schiff returned as a full time conductor in the second half, and led the orchestra in a deeply felt reading of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123, yet another miraculous masterpiece, this time from the 20thcentury. It never fails to amaze me that this beautiful, optimistic and life-affirming work should come during such a dark time not just in human history, but in the composer’s life as well.

He beautifully shaped the melodic idea in the celli and basses at the outset of the work, and really allowed the music to build towards the Allegrovivace(rehearsal number 76) main section. I liked how he shaped the angular melody in the violins, really giving it a great deal of character. There was a real sense of grandeur and excitement in the canonic passage for brasses at rehearsal number 313. Throughout this long first movement, there was an organic unity that led to that final F for the entire orchestra.

In the Giuoco delle coppiemovement, Schiff infused the opening music with real humour, and inspired the bassoonists in some inspired playing. There was heroic and very beautiful trumpet playing in the extended passages for the instrument by the Seattle musicians. The conductor painted a real picture of varying shades of grey (certainly more than fifty) in the Elegia movement. The“outburst” by the strings at rehearsal 34 had a desperate quality to it, almost like a cry for help. Leonard Bernstein once said that a lot of Bartok’s melodic writing is related to the unique sounds of the Hungarian language. This passage, and the way the musicians played it, reminded me of Mr. Bernstein’s statement.

Schiff highlighted the almost Mahler-like sense of irony in some of the music in the Intermezzo interrotto movement. The violas played their beautiful theme at rehearsal 43 with great warmth as well as a depth of feeling. Conductor and orchestra pulled out all the stops in the very exciting final movement. The opening horn solo had a real sense of occasion to it, and conveyed the feeling of the beginning of something momentous. The rapid passage by the first and second violins had a real Hungarian, almost gypsy, flavour, to it. Yesterday afternoon, every musician in the orchestra rose to the occasion responded to Bartok’s technical and musical challenges with aplomb and absolute assurance.

From first note to last, yesterday’s performance by Schiff and the Seattle musicians made for a rich and rewarding musical experience. It was a performance of total commitment on the part of the musicians, as well as one where all the elements came together to make for a very memorable afternoon.

Patrick May

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