It has been way too long (previous engagements in ‘88, ‘99 and ‘08) since Sir András Schiff appeared with the Boston Symphony. Judging by his performance as both piano soloist and conductor on Thursday night, he should come back as early and often as possible. Schiff and the BSO accomplished something stunning .
The brilliant lecturer and recitalist has enjoyed renown as Bach player for decades; apparently he has master’s entire oeuvre memorized and at his fingertips. He also does the complete keyboard works of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bartók. The beauty of his Schubert recital on Boston’s Celebrity Series several years ago still haunts me. I have admired the many masterclasses and interviews he’s given (which appear on YouTube). In sum, he’s an inspiring teacher and pianist.
Keeping company on a Glenn Gould LP as well as in this concert, the Bach Keyboard Concerto in F Minor, BVD 1026, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 make an interesting pairing in that both composers involved themselves with improving keyboard instruments. Beethoven persuaded a maker to make the stronger pianos with longer ranges. Schiff’s Bach, unsurprisingly, sounded perfectly paced and sonically delightful—unsentimental but stirring. (The BSO first offered this concerto in 1914, and has since only performed it three times at Tanglewood, most recently in 1990). I could have listened to him Schiff’s Bach all evening (At this moment in time I listen daily to his Well-Tempered Clavier recordings). Throughout the evening, the orchestra seemed to satisfy his every wish. Elita Kang showed assurance as acting concertmaster.
On the Imperial Bösendorfer, Schiff’s Beethoven bespoke beauty and elegance. His clarity and brilliance made my heart happy. The strikingly lovely duet between Schiff and clarinetist William Hudgins (bravo!) in the second movement achieved perfection, as did Schiff’s long and thrilling cadenza in the first movement. Schiff transported us with lyricism and passion. The first BSO performance took place in 1895, yet the orchestra did not take up this remarkable and popular work again until 1932—with Serge Koussevitzy pianist Robert Goldsand. Since then it has become among the most popular Beethoven piano concerti in the BSO rep. One should rush out Saturday night to experience the reprise.
After a seriously enthusiastic standing O, Schiff gave and extremely lively take on the extremely lively third movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. It a piece I know well, having practiced it for the past months; alas, Schiff’s thrilling tempi elude the limitations of a plucked instrument. Thank you Sir András!!!
At Shiff’s unusually sprightly tempi, the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn worked really well. His clear beat and subtle shaping drew forth a great responsiveness. Béla Bartók’s Dance Suite, full of the folk music the composer collected and admired, received an incisive, colorful and illuminating traversal. Schiff seemed at ease conducting, although a normal mortal might be thrilled just to play the piano so brilliantly. John Ferillo contributed superb oboe solos. On his muted tuba, Mike Roylance seriously impressed, and harpist Jessica Zhou’s contributed many moments of sheer beauty. My date, a former longtime BSO player, agreed that conductor and orchestra reached a high level. See you there on Saturday!.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.