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Sir András Schiff Returns to New York Philharmonic and Offers Some Special Music Making

New York
Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
04/14/2023 -  & April 15, 16, 18, 2023
Joseph Haydn: Piano Concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII:11
Franz Schubert: Symphony No.8 in B Minor “Unfinished”, D.759
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni, K.527: Overture – Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor, K.466

New York Philharmonic, Sir András Schiff (pianist and conductor)

A. Schiff (© Roman Markowicz)

Sir András Schiff Returns to The New York Philharmonic After his triumphant recital at the newly furbished and remodeled Wu Tsai Theater at Geffen Hall, Sir András Schiff, The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence for this season, returned on Friday to conduct the first of his four concerts as conductor and soloist with the New York Philharmonic. It was his first appearance with the orchestra since 2017 and let’s get it out of the way, in case you are curious if it was good: No, it was not only good, it was great! It was a felicitous combination of the orchestra in its new hall, newly energized and playing under the hands – our conductor uses no baton – of one of the most remarkable musicians who also happens to be an expert leader. He designed a program of the works by his favorite composers: Haydn, Mozart and Schubert and fortuitously also appeared as a soloist in two works.

A woman sitting next to me remarked after the concert “I have never seen so many smiling faces on that stage” and that actually encapsulates the mood well. I suppose that part of the success of Sir András as the orchestra leader is rooted in his attitude toward the musicians: he treats them as colleagues rather than his pawns, he always attempts to bring a chamber music quality, permitting individual musicians to shine as if they were playing in a small ensemble and, perhaps more than anything else, he knows how to convey his musical wishes. I have seen him conduct other orchestras and the salient feature of either the rehearsal or actual performance is ever‑present kindness and respect. He came for this series of concerts, during which he will appear again only as soloist in Bartók Concerto No.3 the second week, this time conducted by Iván Fischer, a fellow Hungarian, to find the orchestra in unusually good shape. Among the first desk players, we have now some of the best people in the business and some of the solo playing, especially in the Schubert Symphony No.8, was simply astonishing.

He started the program with the most famous of Haydn’s 11 piano concertos, the one in D Major. We learned from the program notes that this concerto, whose provenance is not exactly known, was Haydn’s was most popular instrumental concerto during his lifetime, and as of his passing in 1809 was already published by eight different publishers in five countries! Its popularity lies in the infectious character of the music, relatively modest pianistic demands as compared with some virtuoso Mozart piano concertos – it is usually the first piano concerto performed by young pianists – and predominantly for the famous finale Rondo all’Ungherese (Allegro assai) which is certainly on of the most optimistic, exhilarating and carefree movements among Haydn’s works. Perhaps one should not dismiss yet another Gypsy-inspired piece, the final Rondo in Haydn’s Piano Trio in G Major. But we know that it takes a superb pianist to make this seemingly easy music spark and spark it did! He played not only with mastery but with gusto, humor and abandon. Maestro Schiff provided his own witty cadenza incorporating a fragment of the “Surprise” Symphony with explosive chords, albeit this time there was no one in the audience to be awakened.

The next in the program was the Schubert Symphony No.8, known as the “Unfinished.” It was one of many incomplete works that Schubert left behind. Yes, it is always interesting to speculate how would the two remaining movements sound, but just as in the case of the Piano Sonata in C Major D.840, which also contains only the first two movements, the greatness of this symphony remains unquestionable and it is not hard to accept what’s left: Allegro and Andante. The first sounds, the cello and double‑bass entry, created a sense of miracle: this listener, in his five decades of attending concerts by the greatest European and American orchestras, has never heard such quintuple pianissimos coming out of the string section. I sometimes like to muse that instrumentalists, unlike singers, rarely hum their tunes. They may play softly, but it’s rarely “playing under one’s breath”: that’s what Maestro Schiff was able to achieve with this ensemble known as not being too easily swayed by conductors.

Let me relay to you a little story that took place more than two decades ago: three of my musician friends, members of the Met Opera Orchestra, admittedly one of America’s best, were visiting with me and I played for them a live recording of the same Schubert Symphony. My usually discriminating friends loved the performance and needless to say tried to guess the conductor: the most famous names of the day were mentioned. Their surprise was beyond belief when I told them that it was András Schiff, then conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. “But he is NOT a conductor!” they exclaimed. Well, so what makes one a conductor, pray tell? His ability to cue your musicians or the ability to convey your thoughts on music, your idea of needed sound and your skill in making musicians play their best not for you but for the music? I am not a conductor, but what I saw that past Friday was the display of such a lovefest, rarely seen on that stage. Among the first desk players desk players were such fantastic individuals as clarinetist Anthony McGill, flutist Robert Langevin, French horn players Richard Deane and Lelanee Sterrett, bassoonist Judy Leclair and of course all the string players lead by Frank Huang. Sir András uses no conductor’s podium and no baton. His hands seem to be expressive enough, and sometimes they barely move. When he conducts from the keyboard, he starts the tutti, such as in the Mozart Concerto, standing up and then after sitting at the keyboard he cues the orchestra with barely a motion. Perhaps it’s all they need... In Schubert the same qualities that Schiff displayed in his solo playing were apparent when he conducted: the music moved with inexorable, unstoppable motion in a most natural manner. The Andante, just as in his performance of the Schubert Sonata, flowed as one uninterrupted melody. I was astonished to hear the softness of sound in the unison of flute and clarinet and later the clarinet solos that were unearthly. The brass section was also exceptional: containing their normally pronounced level so it was never shrill and demonstrating their ability to obtain a true pianissimo in the last chords of the piece. In the intermission which followed the Schubert symphony, the general mood of comments displayed yet another unison voice: “I never heard a better performance of that symphony!”. Though I didn’t take part in the patron’s conversations, I could hardly disagree with them. It was a transcendental performance.

It is now a custom of Sir András to merge two works of Mozart, both in the key of D Minor: his Overture to Don Giovanni with the Piano Concerto No.20. I like that combination and the custom of playing both works without a pause: the soft end of the overture goes wonderfully well into the soft, throbbing strings that open the piano concerto. This is a dramatic work and only one of two, among the Mozart piano concertos, that is in the minor key. As I mentioned earlier, in that work the true cooperation and sense of chamber music‑making came to its final result. It is Schiff’s trademark to play those works just as such and relish his camaraderie with the orchestra members: I have no doubt they enjoy it as well. It was a well neigh impeccable playing on all parts and if one single detail remained in mind it was the transition in the last movement when the mood turns from minor to major: traditionally the oboe comes back to the tune from the Rondo already in tempo. This time, however, Sir András started the players a bit slower and in a span of a few measures arrived at the tempo proper: a small detail, but one that shows that even in warhorses, there’s always room for individuality and a fresh perspective.

Mozart didn’t provide cadenzas for this work and our pianist played the famous one by Beethoven for the first movement and his own for the finale Rondo. His is a wonderful concoction of the themes from Don Giovanni, all of which we hear in the Overture: it is very cleverly written and in one point combines together the themes from the Concerto AND the Overture. It is always fun to see the surprised faces of the orchestra members when they hear it for the first time: wow, we just played that, didn’t we????

At the end of the concerto, there was an eruption from the audience and an almost instant standing ovation. Our conductor-pianist seemed to be overwhelmingly happy with the orchestra and went to congratulate all the sections. I would ask you, dear reader: how often have you seen a conductor making a special “trip” to the double‑bass section? Well, Maestro Schiff did it twice, first after the Schubert Symphony, and let me assure you: they really deserved the attention bestowed upon them. The orchestra’s heartfelt acknowledgment was clearly sincere: they really applauded and that happens infrequently. I never played in an orchestra but I think that on Friday, during the prolonged applause, one thought crossed many a musician’s mind: “Tonight, that triumph we all experienced, is of my making too”. They were damn right! Playing like that was something that will remain in our memories as strongly, as did Sir András’s solo recital: musical life doesn’t come much better!

Roman Markowicz



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