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Mortimer H. Frank
Fanfare, July 2009

Although most videos of concert works have often struck me as distracting from the music at hand, this one proves one of the most fascinating and attractive that I have encountered. For one thing, Schiff on the podium is as intelligent and sensitive as he is at the piano. His gestures are economical and pointed, sometimes made with the eyes rather than with the baton. The camerawork is generally intelligent, albeit with perhaps too much panning of this superb chamber ensemble. Of course it is interesting to have the eye confirm what the ear detects—specifically that the strings play with minimal or (often) no vibrato. Then, too, other period practices are applied. The ensemble is small, supported by but two double basses. Textures throughout are remarkably clear. And one camera angle is striking, shot as it is from directly over the pianist so that a clear view of both his hands reveals (as no other video I have seen does), the extraordinarily disciplined dexterity and complexity of movement that those hands must maintain.

Complementing the visual virtues is Schiff’s superb musicianship as both soloist and conductor. The “Haffner” is impressive. In the spirit of period practices, Schiff over-dots the opening of the second movement. Throughout, textures are sharply delineated, a tribute to the excellent sound as well as to his ear for balances. He also observes both repeats in the second movement. The first one (of the exposition) is certainly welcome, but some may feel the second one (development and recapitulation) is unnecessary. In the third movement, he does not add gratuitous repeats after its Trio, and he follows the 1968 facsimile of the autograph, omitting the little bridge passage preceding the Trio and at the movement’s conclusion. Throughout, tempos are well judged, the unhurried opening movement aptly festive, the second movement never unduly distended, and the finale played just slowly enough to insure clean articulation. But Schiff imposes one peculiarity that will shock—a breath pause just before the coda, the one oddity in an impressive account.

The concerto is every bit as good, similar to Schiff’s recorded account of 1989, also favoring a chamber orchestra, but with Sándor Végh conducting. It should be noted that in prefacing the work with the Don Giovanni Overture, Schiff is trying to suggest the demonic quality they share, a point he underscores in the first movement’s cadenza, where (as in 1989) he favors Beethoven’s but, here, with a brief suggestion of the overture interpolated. It is a point well taken. And it is a superb performance throughout, controlled, never rushed in outer movements, yet tautly organized, and in the finale, appropriately suggesting a hint of manic intensity that Mozart, artist that he was, managed to control. The Bach work was an encore at this concert. Those familiar with Schiff’s Bach from his work for Decca, will know that, avoiding Glen Gould’s glibness in Bach, he projects the music with a textural clarity that its contrapuntal richness demands. In a 15-minute “Bonus” talk (for which English titles are provided) Schiff touches upon a number of interesting points, particularly one noting why he has no lid on his piano when performing Mozart concertos. In short, visually, musically, and sonically this is a superb release.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, April 2009

Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff (b. 1953) just completed his Beethoven cycle of 32 sonatas for San Francisco Performances, so the appearance of this concert of 2 May 2008 from the Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza (directed Claus Wischmann) seems fortuitous. While noted for his keyboard interpretations of the German classics, Schiff’s repute as a conductor burgeons as he continues to direct music from the keyboard, or repertory closely akin to the concerto at hand, such as his programming the D Minor Don Giovanni Overture as a prelude to the D Minor Concerto.

Employing a spare, economical conducting stance, Schiff opens with a strong, festive Haffner Symphony of Mozart with explosive, empfindsamer leaps and chromatics deftly etched by the forty-member ensemble. The con spirito designation proves the rule, with brisk rocket figures and resonant trumpets and woodwinds. The camera work is equally deft, moving according to the score to the next cue, with long and close shots alternated in rapid cutting. No repeat, but the mystery of the figures alternates with its explosive, emotional, Viennese character, through which the oboe tries to shine amidst the lower strings’ trills.  The heart of the symphony, its stately Andante, Schiff moves slightly more andantino, accentuating its Italian lyricism. Chamber music intimacy reigns here, with operatic arias flowering from all sides.  The camera relishes the French horn, bassoons, strings, and Schiff’s left hand, by turns. The periodic structure of the music, its effluent song, proceeds naturally, more an outdoor cassation or serenade than a symphonic movement. A stately, lithe Menuetto and Trio leads to a rousing, rambunctious Presto, the tympani and flute quite lively below and above the fervent strings. A bubbly bassoon marks the suave contour of the progression back to the martial, heraldic theme, a busy occasion for oboe and soft trumpets; a suave transition to the closing materials which have everyone’s feet tapping happy thoughts.

The camera takes us high into the ceiling artwork for the opening, dark chords of Don Giovanni, with only a few glimmers of light evident in this dramma giocoso. Tympani and celli in relief, then the camera way back from the rafters overhead to Schiff behind the keyboard as the music becomes frenetic, then stealthy, as the Don flirts with fate. For added force, Schiff switches the baton to a two-hand stance, pummeling the brisk figures into submission without placing a heavy foot on the Manichean contest. The last pages stand all the hairs up on the back of any classical cat, the horns in full regalia. Attacca, and we enter the throes of the D Minor Concerto, sturm und drang at Mozart’s best. The fervent risoluto yields to the flute and dolce elements, only to fall forward into the seething morass of emotions.  The tutti subsides grudgingly, and Schiff makes his plaint, studied and gracious. Now, the issue becomes whether the keyboard will be swept into the maelstrom, for quite a tumult it is. Deft camerawork from beneath keyboard, left, to capture the expressive, staccato theme in tandem with the bassoon. Amidst his rapt ensemble, Schiff assumes the role of primus inter pares, gliding into his own pungent cadenza, holding off the entry to the coda in playfully taut contest of musical finesse.

The Romance has Schiff adjusting to the dramatic dialectics of the situation, the soft, crystalline arioso, with the two bassoons, to a ferocious struggle amongst Gluck’s Furies from Orfeo in the form of fervent oboes, flutes, and Schiff‘s crossed hands. The clouds disperse and the beautiful illusion reigns once more. The Allegro assai extends the mortal storm, but we know that the salvation of D Major lies ahead. What we did not expect was Schiff’s clever cadenza, combining themes from Don Giovanni and the Concerto, rather a dramatic coup. The camera stalks the long balcony in search of a resolution to the anxieties Schiff explores, until the horns and rising scales of the coda reassure us that even gravity yields to higher powers.

Schiff’s encore is the same he offered at the penultimate Beethoven sequence in San Francisco’s Davies Hall, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue of J.S. Bach.  A marvel of streamlined architecture and rolling chords, the Fantasy proceeds as both song and recitative, Schiff’s unsentimental approach close to that of Glenn Gould, who no less willed a piano into the two-manual sound of a harpsichord. The Fugue emerges in the camera as a dance of the two hands, wherein the participants weave in somber majesty or forget themselves in episodes of stratified colors. So, Schiff has allowed the Dorian Mode its sway over the course of fine evening in Italy, a pageant of mind and heart that resonates long after this taped concert ends.

The “interview” as such has Schiff commenting on the loveliness and versatility of the Teatro Olimpico—designed by Palladio, c. 1580—where Schiff had already staged Cosi fan Tutte. The classical poise, architecture, acoustics, and proportions of the theater determine Schiff’s choice of repertory—he cannot imagine Stravinsky’s Le Sacre in this venue. Schiff notes that in order to make good  chamber music, he must relate to the other performers personally; his favorite medium in chamber music is the string quartet, his preferred listening. Schiff advocates dispensing with conductors for Mozart piano concertos, since their presence reduces the contact of the woodwinds with the keyboard. At the end, Schiff reveals the “source” of his eponymous “Andrea Barca” ensemble, but you’ll have to watch and listen to share in the revelation.

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6:28:31 PM, 28 August 2015
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