Sir Andras Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sparkle in Mendelssohn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn: Sir Andras Schiff (pianist and conductor), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 24.4.2024. (CK)

Sir Andras Schiff

Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No.1; Symphony No.1; Symphony No.4 ‘Italian’

There was a palpable sense of excitement in a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday: Sir Andras Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were about to embark on the first of three concerts, on successive evenings, in which all five of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, plus both Piano Concertos and the Violin Concerto were to be performed. I was only able to attend this first concert, which made it abundantly clear that those able to go to all three were in for a feast.

As always the OAE were an elegant stage presence, the double basses back and centre behind the woodwinds, with pairs of horns and trumpets right and left: front and centre, a commandingly large 1859 Blüthner fortepiano (dating from half a century after Mendelssohn’s birth). The programme note referred to the Blüthner’s ‘careful balance between a dark yet transparent bass register and the sparkling treble notes’ – a description amply confirmed by Sir Andras Schiff’s playing of the First Piano Concerto.

Wagner may have despised Mendelssohn’s music as ‘sweet and tinkling without depth’, but he was wrong: there is sinew and muscle in this music as well as brilliance. Schiff’s clarity, rhythmic acuity and pellucid passagework was alert to the music’s drama as well as its beauty and elegance. Mendelssohn was an innovator in having all three movements played without a break: the outer movements were tautly and excitingly performed, and in the Andante the divided violas and cellos were captivating – ‘a gloriously rich crème caramel of a sound’, as Michael Steinberg has described it.

When Mendelssohn wrote his First Symphony at the age of 15, he had already composed thirteen string symphonies – I remember greatly enjoying one of them conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk a long time ago in the Isle of Man (of all places). Goethe perspicaciously remarked that Mendelssohn at 12 ‘had ideas more grown-up and independent than were Mozart’s at the same age’. Schiff clearly believes in the First Symphony – at the end he picked up the score and embraced it – and he and the OAE made a strong case for it. The minor-key Sturm und Drang opening was immediately arresting, and the dramatic first movement featured some marvellously deft string playing and fresh immediacy from the winds, underpinned by crisp timpani. Strings and winds brought Mozartian grace to the Andante, the woodwinds chortled in the Menuetto, and the vigorously contrapuntal Allegro finale was capped by a wonderfully celebratory coda. In a contrasting section, a piquant clarinet plays over pizzicato strings: when this passage returned, Schiff stood with his arms at his sides, as if appreciating the precision of the pizzicato playing of the strings.

The symphony as a whole leaves the impression of a marvellously airy melodist at work, even though none of the melodies lodge in the mind. The same cannot be said of the Italian Symphony, with its bubbling overflow of catchy tunes and irresistible high spirits (though its composition apparently vexed Mendelssohn no end). Schiff dispensed with score and podium, and his joy in this music was contagious: the OAE responded with playing of wonderful agility and buoyancy. The Pilgrims’ March managed somehow to be brisk and stately at the same time. Best of all was the Con moto moderato. Its opening shares the mood of the opening of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – ‘Awakening of pleasant feelings upon arriving in the country’; and those magical horns put me in mind of Mrs Radcliffe’s Romantic imaginings in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), where the heroine’s party enjoys ‘a collation of fruit and coffee’ in a pavilion, accompanied by softly echoing ‘horns, placed in a distant part of the woods’.

The Saltarello was spinetingling – the OAE strings and winds have no problem articulating at this speed – and it rightly brought the house down. With the Reformation, the Scottish, the Lobgesang and the Violin Concerto among the works to come, I expect the following two evenings will end in similar jubilation.

Chris Kettle

3 thoughts on “Sir Andras Schiff and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sparkle in Mendelssohn”

  1. ​I attended the second of the three Schiff-OAE-Mendelssohn concerts and on this occasion (25.4.24), too, the packed audience was very appreciative. I, for one, marvel Schiff’s seemingly unlimited energy, his ability to perfectly convey his Mendelssohnian language to orchestra / audience alike and, last but not least, his phenomenal memory which contains the universal vast repertoire for piano (solo or concerto).
    Schiff’s search for authenticity is exemplary: the Blüthner piano and OAE’s use of periodical instruments gave us sound timbres which Mendelssohn was likely to have envisaged.
    ​After Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.2 (D Minor) which took probably slightly over 22 minutes, Schiff surprised us with Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op.54, MWV U 156 (also in D Minor) lasting slightly over 12 minutes. Perhaps a tad too generous for an encore but nobody was complaining…on the contrary.

  2. It did seem a little over generous to offer such a long encore. But a marvellous program beautifully played overall.

  3. I agree entirely with the review, and with the comment on the second concert. Alina Ibrahimova and the orchestra played the Violin Concerto wonderfully well on Friday, too. Sadly I couldn’t stay for the ‘Lobgesang’ Symphony.


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