OAE/Schiff review – nothing less than a revelation

Royal Festival Hall, London
Brahms’s First Piano Concerto was reborn thanks to the OAE’s incisive playing and András Schiff’s characterful phrasing

Before the performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto that made up the second half of this concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, András Schiff made a short speech to the Festival Hall audience. This was, he said, “music that you think you know, but we don’t know it well enough”. Those words could serve as the motto for the onward march of the historically informed performance movement, of which the OAE and Schiff are leading but mercifully undoctrinaire advocates. They were absorbingly vindicated in the performance that followed, which in many respects was nothing less than a revelation.

At its heart was the Blüthner grand piano, built in Leipzig at around the time of the work’s unhappy 1859 premiere, and imported for the occasion, apparently from Amsterdam, on which Schiff played Brahms’s dark and leonine concerto. Straight rather than cross strung, the Blüthner instrument lacks the resonant power, especially in the bass, of more modern pianos. Yet it produces a muscular and ringing sound of its own, and with Schiff also directing an orchestra of fewer than 60, the concerto emerged as a piece reborn.

Any fears that the smaller orchestra would lack the requisite power for the concerto’s stormy opening movement and its driving finale were dispelled by the OAE’s incisive playing. This was a rebalanced rather than a small-scale performance. Schiff’s technique and, in particular, his characterful phrasing, meant that those Brahmsian fistfuls of notes that are so often simply swamped now came up gleaming and freshly articulated, revealing the chiaroscuro of a work that is imprinted with the death of Robert Schumann.

The evening had started awkwardly, with Schumann’s own Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra. This is a fascinating piece, not often performed for obvious reasons, but full of insights into the composer’s aesthetic. Unfortunately, the playing misfired technically almost from the start, and the unease was not helped by positioning the four soloists where they seemed unable to see the conductor. Happily, no such problems carried over into the OAE’s crisp and vigorous account of Schumann’s 1851 revision of his own Fourth Symphony, in which the finale fairly danced along under Schiff’s benign direction.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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