Andras Schiff: Better at Keyboard Than Podium

United StatesUnited States Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann: András Schiff (piano and conductor), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 3.4.2013 (SSM)

Bach: Keyboard Concerto No.5 in F minor, BWV 1056
Keyboard Concerto No.3 in D major, BWV 1054
Mendelssohn: Sinfonia No. 9 in C major, Swiss
Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

The list of prominent soloists who, successfully or not, have tried a hand at conducting is nearly endless. These changes midway or late in a soloist’s career have historical precedents in Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Toscanini, Szell and Bernstein. Today the list would include Ashkenazy, Eschenbach, Barenboim and Pletnev. There are obvious reasons for this shift in musical occupation including loss of flexibility or illness, and less obvious ones such as wanting control over an orchestra or the desire to broaden one’s musical landscape.

Soloists who test the waters may find that directing a large group of musicians requires a strong personality, one able to gain respect from an orchestra’s sometimes intractable members. During an interview with the keyboardist Miklós Spányi, I asked him about his attempts at conducting and he replied:For a certain time I preferred conducting to performing, but I realized that it might be better to leave that job to the professional conductor. Conducting from the harpsichord is one thing, but standing in front of all those people is not my…cup of tea.”

To expand on Spanyi’s comment, conducting from the keyboard is barely conducting at all. Depending upon the demands of the piano score, the pianist/conductor may have little time to lead the orchestra. In the two concertos by Bach here, the piano basically is played non-stop and, in the dual role of soloist and frequent basso continuo, there is little time for the pianist to lift a hand from the keys. This style of conducting relies on the orchestra to play successfully on its own. The F-minor Concerto’s two outer movements were a little rough around the edges, but this was redeemed with a poignant middle Largo. The Concerto No. 3 fared better with Schiff clearly distinguishing between the left and right hand voices: this was the kind of technique that made Schiff the Bach pianist of his time. His trademark détaché playing, clearly influenced by Glen Gould, is more measured, less eccentric and warmer than the earlier Gould. It was difficult to spot but towards the end of the middle movement Schiff uses the pedal ever so slightly to sustain the bridge between several measures. This was a solid performance with the orchestra improving considerably from the opening work.

It wasn’t until the Mendelssohn sinfonia that one could see the conductor’s full style, and perhaps this is not the best choice of pieces on which to judge Schiff’s skill. Playbill states this is the first performance ever of the piece at Carnegie Hall, which leads to the question, why hasn’t it been played before? Well, the answer is simple: it’s pleasant but insubstantial. Some of the other string sinfonias are less ambitious and can be accepted on their own terms, but the 9th attempts too much and Schiff didn’t quite reach the level of intensity that is needed.

The Schumann Symphony No. 4 was performed in its later version of 1851. Schiff conducted the movements without break, as specified on the original 1841 version which was closer to a symphonic fantasy than a traditional symphony.

The 4th was convincingly played, but there were moments when it seemed that Schiff was not really controlling the orchestra, that they knew this piece well and were playing on autopilot. This was Schiff’s first conducting gig with the Philharmonic, and I was inclined to be more lenient with him. In point of fact, though, he has been conducting (but not full time) since 1999.

Overall it was a moderately successful performance from a first-rate pianist and a well-intentioned conductor.

Stan Metzger