Brahms the radical, Schumann the assured and joyful. This was the dazzling evidence of two concerts by the pianist-conductor András Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – the OAE’s epithet has never seemed more fitting – at the Royal Festival Hall last week. The textbook view of these towering 19th-century composers, stated baldly, differs sharply. Brahms the weighty traditionalist (variously, turgid, treacly, addled, depending on who’s talking, and that might include Stravinsky and Britten); Schumann the neurotic worrier, ladling on the gravy when writing for a full orchestra. The history of how subsequent musicians, Mahler among them, have “corrected” Schumann’s scoring could be a book in itself.
It’s a complicated musicological issue for a short newspaper column, but a flag has to be raised on the matter to grasp why the Schiff/OAE concerts were so important. The two composer-pianists were friends, Schumann older by a quarter of a century, his wife, Clara, also a composer and pianist, adored (almost certainly innocently in the case of Brahms) by both men. The story is full of heartbreak. Start by reading Robert and Clara’s gripping marriage diaries, readily available in a modern edition, if the subject is new to you. The entwining of all three lives, musical and private, is germane. Schiff, conducting and performing (“Sometimes it’s good to make music without the police,” he told us wryly, explaining the absence of a separate conductor), had programmed the concerts accordingly.
On Monday, after a buoyant performance of Schumann’s Symphony No 4 (1851 version), Schiff was soloist in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1. Brahms and Clara first played this work through together, in a two-piano version, in 1854. By the time the work was finished, Robert Schumann was dead, the concerto – its Leipzig premiere a critical disaster – now full of elegy for a beloved friend.
Tuesday’s concert paired Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2 (1878), written at a safe distance from that youthful failure – pre- and post-beard, as some express it – with Schumann’s Symphony No 3 in E flat (1853). Nicknamed the “Rhenish”, its inspiration is the gothic cathedral of Cologne and the River Rhine (into which, within a year of its premiere, Schumann would throw himself in a suicide attempt). With the lofty, chorale-like counterpoint of its fourth movement mimicking the cathedral’s vaulting splendour, the piece can sound leaden in the wrong hands, falsely underlining Schumann’s supposed inadequacies.
So much became clear in the OAE’s account. Schumann needs no defenders, only the right interpreters. Historically informed performance was once confined to baroque music or earlier, but now the study of 19th-century music is keen scholarly business. Audiences have been slower to catch up. Of the few certainties in life, a big symphony orchestra playing a big romantic work, preferably like your recording at home, is one. Or was. Not everyone likes the experimental zest of valveless horns, or the gentler attack of gut strings, however authentic they may be: fine for Bach, disconcerting for Brahms. This is a live, box-office question for programmers (hence the questionnaire we were given by Oxford University’s Transforming 19th-Century Historically Informed Performance project).
Luckily the OAE’s audience were enthusiastically responsive. The much-reduced orchestra, giving space and clarity to the sound, proved transformative. With first and second violins split to right and left of the stage, not a rarity but vital for the many conversational answering phrases, cellos and violas in between, double basses at the back, the balance was ideal. Woodwind, softer in sound than modern examples, never struggled to be heard. There’s so much to say about articulation, rubato, portamento. They may sound like technical mysteries but they’re about breathing and phrasing, the very essence of the music.
As for Schiff’s accounts of the two concertos, played on an 1860s Blüthner, they made Brahms sound revolutionary, at times ethereal, always transparent, never once overblown. This earlier piano, with parallel strings and a distinct difference between resonant bottom, singing middle and light top register, has none of the aural perfections of a modern grand. Both have their place. The struggle and frailty of sound had its own thrilling beauty, but then Schiff has no pianistic equal in terms of humility to the music, or imagination in its performance.
The briefest word on English National Opera’s revival of Simon McBurney’s 2013 production of The Magic Flute, conducted by Ben Gernon: a triumph of invention over novelty, and an ingenious solution to this most difficult of masterpieces. There’s also a new ENO/Overture Opera Guide out to coincide. Read it, go, be enchanted.
Star ratings (out of five)
András Schiff/OAE ★★★★★
The Magic Flute ★★★★
• The Magic Flute is in rep at the Coliseum, London, until 11 April