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Friday, April 5, 2013

Concert Review: The Quickness of the Hand

András Schiff conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Up from the piano: soloist and conductor András Schiff.
Image courtesy the New York Philharmonic.
The Bach Variations, the New York Philharmonic's month-long excursion into the repertory of Johann Sebastian Bach, came to a fitting end this week with concerts featuring Hungarian pianist and conductor András Schiff. But where Mr. Schiff is known for his international appearances as a virtuoso concerto guest and solo performer, these concerts cast him in the less familiar role of conductor,  both from the keyboard and later, the podium.






The program for these concerts (heard at the Friday 11am matinée) also reflected the necessity of building a bridge from a month of baroque repertory back toward the Philharmonic's more familiar bread and butter: the 19th century German repertory that the orchestra's subscribers know and love. As such, the concert paired two Bach keyboard concertos with works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, showing Bach's considerable stylistic influence on these two Early Romantic composers.

The concert opened with two Bach keyboard concertos: the No. 5 in F minor and the No. 3 in D Major. Mr. Schiff conducted these works from the Steinway, playing the solo piano part with a complete abhorrence of the sustain pedal in an attempt to duplicate the staccato sound of the harpsichord on the modern piano. Given those self-imposed limitations, the artist played with a powerful, agile touch, using great strength of fingers and wrists to wrest the melody from the keyboard. Although he cued the orchestra, sometimes with a lifted arm or a nod of the head, he worked closely with concertmaster Sheryl Staples to manage the performance.

The Fifth Keyboard Concerto is a short work, noted for its central Largo. This movement has one of Bach's most memorable,  soul-searching melodies, played here with great eloquence. He led the charge into the Presto that followed, driving the music forward with his shoulders and demonstrating great agility in the repetitions and flourishes that bring this concerto to a bustling climax. The Third Keyboard Concerto, (itself a transcription of an earlier work that Bach composed for the violin) featured a sweet, singing tone from the Steinway and expert support from the small tutti ensemble.

The piano was removed and a podium erected for the next work: Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 9, known as the Swiss. Written when the young composer was just 14, for salon performances in the Mendelsssohns' spacious Berlin home, this is the sound of a young composer on the cusp of his maturity. These are the first Philharmonic performances of this work, and a strong argument for further exploration of this composer's early output.

Although the String Symphony uses only that section of the orchestra, clever divisions of the violins and violas produce an echo of the absent instruments, particularly in the yodeling figure that dominates the central slow movement and gives the symphony its nickname. Mr. Schiff demonstrated an easy, natural affinity for this music, drawing the various sections out and sculpting a clear orchestral texture.

The second half of the program featured an energetic performance of Robert Schumann's Fourth Symphony, conducted from memory. The Fourth is actually Schumann's second major symphonic creation, a much-revised composition that drew criticism in the  1850s for its thick orchestration and complex writing for winds.

Mr. Schiff's leadership turned these points into musical strengths, trading off melody between the sections of the orchestra and leading a performance that seemed to accelerate as it careened between the four movements without a single pause. Whether in  he complex game of tag that makes up the development of the first movement, the elegant trio nestled at the heart of a muscular scherzo, or the pell-mell finale, Mr. Schiff never slackened off once, bringing the work to its home key in a blaze of sound that roused the enthusiasm of the assembled listeners.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.