Next year’s concert schedules are already filled with events to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. But the Barbican’s celebration is already under way, and the first two in a series of four concerts in which András Schiff will play the Beethoven piano concertos with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer were part of it.
Fischer is framing the concertos with Dvořák, and here each programme began with a sequence of miniatures: one of the Op 59 Legends and a Slavonic Dance, together with one of the Op 29 Choruses, for which the orchestra laid down their instruments and turned into a highly competent a cappella choir. It ended with a symphony, the troubled D minor Seventh, and the ebullient G major Eighth. It was all immaculately, lovingly presented, even if the orchestral sound sometimes seemed rather insistently bright, but it was the Beethoven that made the concerts truly memorable.
Schiff had chosen to begin the series with the last two concertos, the Fourth and Fifth. Neither is exactly unfamiliar, but these performances reinvented them. Every morsel of the piano writing seemed to have been rethought, yet there was nothing didactic or perverse about the results. Each perfectly articulated bar brought its own surprises and delights, fresh insights into works one thought one knew so well, especially from Schiff’s wonderfully eloquent left hand, and seemed to encourage Fischer and his orchestra to find new things, too.
There were encores – after the Fourth concerto the orchestra became a choir again as Schiff accompanied them in a part song by Haydn, Die Beredsamkeit, while after the Fifth, the Emperor, there was more Beethoven, the first movement of the Waldstein Sonata Op 53 in a wonderfully fleet performance as minutely nuanced as the concertos had been. If we hear better Beethoven playing during the next year, we will be very lucky indeed.
Remaining concerts in the Barbican’s Beethoven 250 series, 23 and 24 May.