For Schiff, Higher Marks as Pianist Than Conductor

United StatesUnited States Mendelssohn, Bach: András Schiff (piano, conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.10.2012 (HS)

Mendelssohn: Fingal’s Cave Overture
Bach: Keyboard Concerto No. 2 in E major
Bach: Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major, Italian

As part of his Bach project (see my review of his Well-Tempered Clavier Book I here), pianist András Schiff led the San Francisco Symphony’s subscription concerts this week. He sandwiched Bach’s first two keyboard concertos in between works by Mendelssohn, one of Bach’s most prominent advocates in the 19th century.

Schiff the Conductor takes the same no-nonsense approach to coaxing an orchestra that Schiff the Pianist does at the piano bench. At the keyboard he indulges in no histrionics, no drama, infusing all his energy into the flow of the music. He conducted Bach from the piano with nods and simple gestures. For Mendelssohn, he worked without a baton, concentrating on setting tempos and meting out cues (sometimes a bit late). A prodigious memory allowed him to go the entire evening without a score, both at the piano and at the podium.

In theory, this should make the music more flexible and free, and it certainly did at the piano. It did not seem to translate so well in front of an orchestra. The two Mendelssohn works lacked flair and the Keyboard Concerto No. 2 in E major never quite got itself into gear.

When it all worked, however, the results could be sublime. The invigorating unison/octave opening phrases of the Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor exploded with energy, yet remained deft, a miracle of power and finesse. The most often-played of Bach’s keyboard concertos—also the most colorful—galloped into ever-wilder contrapuntal passages in the fast-paced outer sections, and in the slow movement, Schiff spun out a gorgeous singing melody that played seductively against a never-quiet pulse.

Playing without pedal, as is his preference in Bach, Schiff revved up the intensity in the outer movements with his precision and a palpable sense of forward motion. And even without pedal, in the slow movement the melody sang expressively. The orchestra, responsive to the dramatic dynamics of his playing, shifted gears seamlessly along with him.

That performance came like a refreshing splash of water just before intermission. The opener, Mendelssohn’s scene-painting Fingal’s Cave Overture, seemed cautious and deliberate, lacking in the magic possible in its atmospheric writing. And the E major concerto, a hodgepodge of clips from previous cantatas, sounded delicate and distant.

After the lively performance of the D minor concerto, the lack of spontaneity and vigor was disappointing in an otherwise cleanly played Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 in A major, the Italian. Tempos dragged in the opening movement, when they should have been sprightly, and parts of the orchestra seemed a hair behind the beat, deadly in a piece that has do dance to be effective. There was zero sense of propulsion and no spring to the rhythms, as Schiff blithely turned giving unneeded cues to the first violins, to the cellos, to the winds. Textures were sludgy instead of transparent. The second movement andante con moto was better, but the minuet of the third movement felt heavy in comparison. The finale utterly lacked buoyancy—again much too slow—but it all finished together, if noticeably winded.

Harvey Steiman