Poise and Precision but Lacking Personality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Haydn: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / András Schiff (fortepiano/conductor), The Anvil Arts Centre, Basingstoke, 20.2.2013. (NB)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat K.271 (Jeunehomme)
Haydn:  Symphony No. 98 in B flat
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor K.49

A good-sized audience turned out for the third concert of the Anvil Arts Centre’s International Concert series of the New Year.  The previous two had been given by orchestras boasting pedigrees of over five hundred and just shy of two hundred and fifty years.  Last night’s ensemble – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – have been in existence just twenty-six but they lay claim to a performance tradition dating back hundreds of years.  Directing the concert was the world-famous Hungarian pianist András Schiff who has made the transition – as so many do – to conducting as well as playing.  The two Mozart concerti – one relatively early, one late, framed a mature Haydn masterpiece which made for an interesting if rather lop-sided programme.

Apparent from the opening bars were the two enduring virtues of the concert; the precision and technical polish of the orchestra and just how ideal the Anvil is as a venue for all different styles of music-making.  With a small body of strings, two oboes and two horns this had the atmosphere and intensity of chamber music.  Schiff played on a modern reproduction fortepiano which has the thinner and articulate sound one expects in comparison to a modern concert grand.  His performance style, whether playing or directing was unfussy to the point of static – indeed most of the control of the orchestra’s ensemble was taken by leader Alison Bury.  Understatement and simplicity allied to an immaculate technique was the order of the day.  This is where the Anvil’s ideal acoustics help so much – the slightest whisper of a musical phrase carrying around the hall with total clarity.    This was especially true in the muted beauty of the slow movement Andantino where the minor key intensity was sustained most beautifully.  This concerto was written in Salzburg in 1777 when Mozart was producing works to commission for local dignitaries.  The Serenade was an often preferred form and the influence of the music-styles required for such works leak over into this concerto and others.  Here, the Rondeau: Presto finale has a central Minuet diversion with plucked strings imitating guitars whilst accompanying a song-like solo line in typical serenade-style.  All of this was dispatched with great élan by soloist and orchestra although it was a rather objective performance.

The programme set great store by the revolutionary nature of both concerti and how in these two works Mozart broke the bonds of musical and indeed social convention.  I have no doubt that all of that is absolutely true but to a modern audience the music itself is what remains and for all the sheer skill of this performance I found it strangely unengaging.

If that was the case for the first of the concerti it was even more so for the Symphony that followed.  Schiff forsook the piano stool and directed the orchestra – without a podium – from the front of the group.  Again, this was very much a collaborative performance and without doubt Schiff knows the work intimately.  But curiously, whilst he was clearly revelling in the quality of the playing around him he seemed to do almost nothing to impose his personality onto the work.  Via the medium of the keyboard in the other works he was – literally – an audible constituent element.  Here, I was really not sure that the performance would have been significantly different with or without his presence.  Tempi in all four movements were surprisingly traditional and, more curiously, once a movement’s tempo was established there was no ebb and flow.  Again one could take great pleasure in the sheer aural allure of the playing and the undoubted fact that the lighter textures achieved by a period orchestra allow details to register most effectively.  But once you had stripped away these valuable qualities it was a very plain performance and one that left you questioning the greatness of the work.  In fairness I should compliment lead cellist Robin Michael as well as leader Alison Bury for their beautiful solos as well the quirkily brief concertante passage allotted to a keyboard just before the work’s conclusion, which Schiff played with brio and humour.

The second half of the concert was given over to the Piano Concerto No.24 alone.  By some way this received the best performance of the evening.  This work was scored for the fullest orchestra too with clarinets joining the bassoons, flute, pair of trumpets and timpani that were added for the Symphony.  Schiff had played the orchestral tuttis in the earlier concerto but here – as befitted its larger and more complex scale – soloist and orchestra were treated as wholly separate entities.  It would not be stretching credulity too far to perceive this work as having the seed of Romantic concerti style in it.  The storm and stress of the orchestra’s opening music was in extreme contrast to Schiff’s introspective entry.  I wondered if the contrast was indeed too extreme, but Schiff allowed himself a far greater expressive freedom throughout and this proved simply to be an example of this.  The mercurial ending to the movement was brilliantly achieved and if it continues to surprise today. One can but imagine its impact on the cultural elite of Vienna in 1786.

Schiff made a point throughout the concert of having minimal breaks between movements.  However, an extended bout of audience coughing prolonged the gap before the start of the glorious second movement Larghetto.  Rather than breaking the spell this seemed to drive Schiff to even greater levels of hushed intensity.  This was solo playing of the highest order, the audience being drawn into his rapt vision.  The orchestra – especially the woodwind – responded with playing of equal stature.  For all the charm of the serenade-like writing of the Ninth Concerto here Mozart had upped the emotional ante by a substantial writing music at once both beautiful and profound.  One can understand why contemporary Viennese audience were confounded; the Finale only latterly provides the kind of brilliant high spirits and for much of the time an uneasy calm pervades the minor key dominated music.  Of course, Schiff’s technique is ideally suited to playing this style of music with complete intellectual and musical clarity, but again I did wonder whether he might have risked unbuttoning the emotion to allow a final dash to the closing bars. Overall this was a very fine performance indeed of this great work.

Nick Barnard