‘Schiff’s Surprise’: Haydn

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


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

image_description=Sir Andr·s Schiff [Photo © Nadia F. Romanini]
product_title= ‘Schiff’s Surprise’: Haydn
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Sir Andr·s Schiff [Photo © Nadia F. Romanini]