Sir András Schiff, Bernard Haitink / Tonhalle Orchestra
Beethoven / Bruckner
Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-12-07
This was a subscription concert at the Tonhalle Zurich. The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich was directed by Bernard Haitink, the soloist was Sir András Schiff. The program (under the title “Orchestral Magic”) featured “just” two compositions: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73, and Bruckner’s unfinished Symphony No.9 in D minor.
There were two more instances of the same concert on the following two days, this event was practically sold out. My seat was in the center-back of the hall.
Sir András Schiff (*1953) is maybe the most prominent Hungarian pianist today. I have written about his recordings in several posts, e.g., in the one about Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111. More on him below. This was my first “live” encounter with this artist.
In the case of Bernard Haitink (*1929), this was my second “live” encounter—see my earlier concert report (Lucerne, 2016-09-04). That earlier concert featured works by Antonín Dvořák—it would be interesting to witness his interpretation of Bruckner’s symphony, as Bruckner and Mahler are his “specialties”.
As much as I was eager to experience András Schiff in concert (and to hear Haitink’s Bruckner 9, of course), I must confess that I also had some concerns! These concerns were similar to those which I alluded to in my review about a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in Zurich on 2016-11-14: whether this would be a concerto with minor variations to what one knows only too well. Both Beethoven’s fourth and the fifth concerto are susceptible to this phenomenon. In the concert on 2016-11-14, my concerns were of course pointless, as this was an excellent, out-of-the-ordinary performance on historical instruments.
However, in this concert, such concerns appeared more substantial, again relating to the Beethoven piano concerto—this time about the Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73. That concerto may be the most Apollonian, the most internally and emotionally balanced among Beethoven’s piano concertos, which implies that it has no “rough edges”; some may even imply that it lacks “features”, such as “show elements”. For example, it even lacks a proper cadenza. Beethoven did not write this concerto to present himself, to excel as a pianist.
So, even more than in piano concerto No.4 (which is virtuosic, technically demanding, and features cadenzas), one may ask how much possibilities a pianist has to contribute his personality. And hence my concern that this might be a concert essentially with a “standard interpretation” with minor variations…
How About This Concert?
As mentioned, this was my first encounter with Sir András Schiff, and I was curious to experience how he “acts” in a live concert. My experience with Schiff so far is from CD recordings, and from his lecture series about Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, available as podcast. My impression from these virtual encounters was that Schiff is an excellent, entertaining communicator, and it seems that he has an excellent ability to establish a link with the audience in his concerts.
However, more often than not, his CDs come across as rather dry, often overly didactic (“ex cathedra” playing). Often, he appears to want to demonstrate in exemplary fashion how specific details in the notation ought to be performed. Some of his playing may occasionally sound exotic or out-of-the-ordinary—merely because he insists that one must play a particular detail (e.g., the pedaling in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C♯ minor, op.27/2, “Moonlight”) in a specific way. He will then double up his effort to “demonstrate” his solution / opinion, even if he is the only one following this path. But apart from that (which of ten may be very interesting, and he may often be right with his opinion!), he often fails to “draw me into his interpretations”.
Not an Issue Here, for Sure!
Any concerns that I might have had with the Beethoven concerto evaporated instantly when I entered the hall. The concert grand in the center of the podium was ready for the Beethoven concerto. However, to my pleasant surprise, it was not a Steinway D concert grand (of which the Tonhalle owns two), but Bösendorfer’s latest model, the 280VC. This alone promised to be an interesting experience!
Actually, I should have “smelled” it! Our piano tuner Daniel Bachman, as well as his brother, Urs Bachmann (they are providing the Steinway concert grands for most major festivals in Switzerland) have told me about Bösendorfer’s new model, in awe about the fact that Bösendorfer—now 100% owned by Yamaha—ventured developing an entirely new, big concert grand from scratch. It is a little smaller than the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial and lacks the extra keys in the bass (the 290 Imperial has 97 keys total, in lieu of the standard 88).
András Schiff is one of the key artists favoring the new model 280VC. I also know that the Bachmann brothers have been handling Sir András Schiff’s pianos for several years (see also an earlier post). They are now also handling the 280VC: Daniel Bachmann set up and tuned the piano in this concert. Needless to say that I was very interested in hearing how this piano sounds in concert!
This is the second concert review featuring the Piano Concerto No.5 in E♭ major, op.73, “Emperor”, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Last January I attended a concert where Oliver Schnyder was performing this concerto under Sir Roger Norrington. I have written some comments on the composition in that post; let me therefore just list the movements here:
- Allegro (4/4)
- Adagio un poco mosso (4/4)
- Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo (6/8)
The Performance —
A peculiarity in Beethoven’s fifth concerto are the initial ff tutti chords which mark an E♭ major cadence (E♭—A♭—B♭—E♭), with a piano cadenza in each of the intervals. The first two cadenzas are rhythmically free. They start with arpeggiated chords, working their way up from the bottom of the keyboard (with the sustain pedal to be kept down throughout), up to a climax, then falls down again half-way. The third cadenza is similar, but rhythmically more “organized” in the first half. In the first two cadenzas, András Schiff took the arpeggi fluently (the sustain pedal makes them sound legato anyway), but then, he made the climax stand out by articulating extra-clearly.
Schiff kept the clear articulation also in the descending part, even using delicate inégale playing. That’s a passage where many pianists would spend the extra effort in trying to hide position shifts in the hands. The subsequent exposition gave a glimpse on the work of the orchestra. Bernard Haitink made sure that sforzati and timpani beats in the main theme stood out clearly. It seemed to indicate that the advent of historically informed playing (HIP) has had its effect on Haitink’s interpretation, too. In the secondary theme, one could get a first impression about the excellent playing of the two horns: these have a prominent role in this concerto.
András Schiff’s playing stood out through generally careful articulation (with very few exceptions in the last movement), differentiated dynamics, conscious and explicit weighting of the two hands. Often, he appeared to let the right hand run freely in its passagework, while at the same time highlighting the motifs in the left hand extra clearly, both in dynamics and articulation. Yet, in this live situation, I didn’t have the impression of him being overly didactic. Punctuated quavers were often consciously over-punctuated. I also noted the occasional use of arpeggiando articulation for peak chords and chord sequences.
An interesting feature: the distinct acceleration in the 22 sempre staccato bars following bar 311—Schiff appeared to interpret this as written cadenza. In general, I found András Schiff’s playing to be unpretentious—maybe with a few exceptions where he could not stop his didactic trait by very clearly differentiating between triplets and regular quavers and semiquavers—especially also in the second movement.
The instrument was remarkable not only because it stood out from the uniformity of the Steinway D phalanx that dominates the concert halls of this world: the Bösendorfer 280VC looked new and shiny—and it also was in excellent shape, tuned and regulated very well. At least in András Schiff’s hands, it clearly seemed superior to an “ordinary” Steinway D. Its clarity was remarkable through all registers, from the full, rounded bass up to the shiny, glowing top octaves, the richness in sound in general. Even just extended resonance of the final chord at the end of the first movement (sempre Ped.) was pure pleasure.
However, the piano sound wasn’t just nice, smooth and well-balanced: in ff octave passages it is also able to exhibit considerable “bite”. To summarize the piano aspect of this evening: this new concert grand is clearly enriching today’s concert life!
II. Adagio un poco mosso
In the slow movement, András Schiff almost exaggerated the clarity in his playing: very consciously and distinctly, he articulated, pointed out hidden melody fragments in the middle and lower voices. Yet, there was at least a certain danger of losing tension. Haitink’s and Schiff’s focus in this movement appeared to be on calmness and contemplation, rather than in building up tension and expectation towards the final movement.
III. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
The very immediate attacca beginning of the last movement opens up the notorious question about articulation and accentuation in the first bar of the main theme. The question whether the bows above the quavers are slurs or rather phrasing marks. In other words: the question is whether or not one should play the second pair of quavers with syncopation. I have mentioned this issue already in my review to an earlier concert. András Schiff decided against syncopation (also my favored solution), in favor of a consistent tension build-up through the first bar, towards the two pairs of semiquavers and the subsequent sforzando chord.
Here again, I noted Schiff’s careful, often almost excessively pronounced articulation. Though, I have a minor reservation here: in the main theme, the descending pairs of semiquaver octave parallels in the right hand appeared strangely expanded, while others seemed a tad rushed, almost superficial. On the other hand, Schiff typically started solo parts with conscious, distinct clarity, articulating very carefully. Schiff also appeared to demonstrate Beethoven’s humor via very clear accents and occasional use of rubato, i.e., almost excessive agogics.
Encore — Schubert: Moment Musicaux op.94, D.780, Moment Musical No.3 in F minor
As encore, Sir András Schiff offered the Moment Musical No.3 in F minor, Allegro moderato, from op.94 (D.780) by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). I noted the excellent balance in dynamics, phrasing and careful articulation. On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed to encounter an overly retained, excessively well-behaved and equilibrated performance, lacking expression and sentiment. It reminded me of the impression that ever so often I find with CD / studio recordings of this artist.
Bruckner: Symphony No.9 in D minor, WAB 109
Sadly, Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) was not able to complete his Symphony No.9 in D minor, WAB 109. Major, sketchy fragments of the last movement exist, but these are far from completion, therefore only the first three movements are performed. Bruckner originally intended to dedicate this symphony “dem Lieben Gott”, rather than an earthly being. Here’s a list of the movements in this symphony:
- Feierlich, misterioso [solemn, mysteriously]
- Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft — Trio: Schnell [busy (/ emotional), vivid]
- Adagio: Langsam, feierlich [slow, solemn]
- Finale (incomplete, fragments only)
For this composition, Bruckner asked for a rather big orchestra:
- flutes: 3
- oboes: 3
- clarinets: 3
- bassoons: 3
- horns: 8; slow movement: 4, plus 4 “Wagner tuba” (2 tenors in B♭, 2 bases in F)
- trumpets: 3
- trombones: 3 (one also bass tuba)
After the intermission, we were able to experience and enjoy the fully staffed string section of the Tonhalle orchestra!
I. Feierlich, misterioso
Bernard Haitink proved to be a master of the big form. In Bruckner’s monstrous movements, he conducted with diligence and utter economy in his movements (he is 87, after all!). He carefully filled the movements with tension, exhibiting excellent control over the dynamics. Tempo changes appeared totally natural and inconspicuous, formal segments in Bruckner’s composition joined up harmoniously. I really liked the dense, harmonious string sound, velvety in the violins: voices from a single mold, excellent! Then, in a Bruckner symphony in particular, even an absolute necessity: the excellent brass section—brilliant, if not shiny, but not overacting or unnecessarily showing off. The brass instruments were well-controlled, carefully balanced—almost like a well-adjusted, romantic organ.
II. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft — Trio: Schnell
In terms of rhythmic coordination, the Scherzo with its extended, fast pizzicato sections is a rather demanding movement. The orchestra appeared to master this almost effortlessly, even after the challenges of the strenuous first movement. My only, minor concern / point-of-critique: at position “A” (bars 42ff.), Bernard Haitink reduced the tempo a tad, as if he had become aware of the movement being too fast; at the return of the main theme, though, he returned to the original pace. I didn’t find this entirely convincing. There is an equivalent segment at “G” in the score (bars 160ff.). However, here, the tempo change is intended, as this follows a section marked “allmählich bewegter” (gradually more agitated), and there is an a tempo mark at “G”.
The Trio is a moody piece, with sections full of spiccati, just as virtuosic and demanding as the Scherzo. These alternate with expressive segments with melodic fragments. To me, this did not appear as a highly polished, let alone cold showpiece. I found the da capo instance of the Scherzo more convincing, more organic than the beginning of the movement.
III. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich
The slow, third movement seems to unleash the primordial forces in giant build-ups, huge arches so typical of Bruckner’s music. It is as if the composer had realized that this would be his last completed symphony movement. There were no ruptures or surprises in Haitink’s realization of this almost monstrous structure, featuring passages full of glowing expressivity. I heard this as a movement as a harmonious, organic structure.
There are very impressive fff eruptions, presenting the brass section (now with four Wagner tubas and four French horns) in top form. Between these strong discharges, there are also segments where trombones and oboes are expressing forlornness. Then again, the music periodically appears to gather new forces—just to erupt into dissonances again, indicating a cry of despair. But the composer doesn’t just give up, calmly starts anew, repeatedly.
Sadly, the movement ultimately runs into a void. With the last movement missing, there is no redemption, no transfiguration, let alone apotheosis. That’s a deficiency that we have to accept, leaving the ultimate solution to our imagination. Even a master such as Bernard Haitink can’t resolve this!
What remains is the memory from a very impressive concert evening, where Bruckner probably overshadowed the Beethoven concerto. The orchestra presented itself in excellent shape, mastering the giant dimensions of the two works with very little, if any signs of fatigue. The musicians wholeheartedly supported their conductor, acted as a reliable instrument to their master, and the standing ovation for Bernard Haitink was definitely well-deserved!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.