Friday 26 June 2009

Perényi/Philharmonia/Schiff - Haydn, 25 June 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Symphony no.80 in D minor
Piano concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII:11
Cello concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1
Symphony no.103 in E-flat major, ‘Drum Roll’

Miklós Perényi (violoncello)
Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano/conductor)

All-Haydn programmes remain regrettably rare. Although the bicentenary of the composer’s death has given something of a fillip to his fortunes, it is by no means certain how they will fare in 2010. András Schiff is a great Haydn enthusiast; he recently masterminded the Wigmore Hall’s weekend celebrations for the weekend of the anniversary itself, his solo recital providing a fitting conclusion. On this occasion, as part of his ongoing collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra, we heard two symphonies and two concertos: a generous programme, which, with interval, stretched over two-and-a-half hours. Rarely if ever do I feel sated with Haydn, but a rush to the doors at the end of the Drum Roll Symphony suggested that some in the audience might have felt otherwise. Schiff’s fondness for repeats played its part here.

Even when Haydn does crop up upon concert programmes, an absurdly small number of works tends to be drawn upon, so it was a delight to hear the splendid D minor symphony, no.80, written in 1784. I was surprised – most pleasantly – by the size of the orchestra for: larger than those to which our balefully ‘period’-influenced times have accustomed us. The string section ran from fourteen first violins to six double basses, and never sounded like anything other than an impeccable section of modern instrumentalists. It was all the more surprising then to see, and all the more unwelcome to hear, natural horns, whose rasping sound was evident throughout the concert. I suppose we should be grateful that mobile telephones were restricted to the first movement of this symphony. The twin demands of drive and grace were successfully contrasted, opposed, and then, in the finale, reconciled, in a generally winning performance. The D minor of the first movement recalled Gluck’s Don Juan ballet music, whilst also looking forward at least on occasion to Mozart’s essays in this key. Schiff gave the mysterious pauses their due. Moreover, this was an occasion upon which use of antiphonal violins, on the conductor’s left and right, did not reflect mere fashionable tokenism, but paid off handsomely in clarification of imitative and responsive passages. The rich, perhaps surprisingly operatic, nature of the slow movement was amply conveyed in an expansive yet dramatic reading. The structure was admirably clear: phrases, answers, paragraphs, all in their allotted places, without descending into the realms of the bureaucratic. I especially liked a contribution from wonderfully bubbling bassoons at the end. The minuet proved equally successful, its minor-mode Sturm und Drang retaining a fine sense of swing. I wondered, however, whether the welcome relaxation for the trio’s chamber music was overdone. It did, however, mean that one felt true urgency upon the full orchestral reprise of the minuet. The finale was certainly taken Presto, with great fizz, but never hard-driven. The jerky syncopations were made forcefully to count, as it were. Strings sounded splendidly rich but there were some nasty sounds from the horns.

For the D major piano concerto, Schiff cut down the orchestra to a more typical ‘chamber’ size group. The fourteen firsts were now eight and the basses were but two in number. One certainly heard the fewer strings in the lighter tone that characterised both this and the following cello concerto. Again, the splitting of strings brought antiphonal benefits. Schiff lavished his typically beautiful, pearly tone upon the solo part, which was well articulated without a hint of mannerism. The cadenza to the first movement brought a quotation from the Surprise Symphony, which amused many, but to me it sounded a little too obvious. When it came to the slow movement, its orchestral introduction sounded a bit laboured: not so much a matter of tempo as of Schiff’s excessive moulding of the part. Matters improved once he had the piano part to attend to; much of this sounded beautiful indeed. Both piano and strings proved duly attentive to Haydn’s dissonances and their harmonic implications. I felt the lack of (relative) string weight more keenly in the final Rondo all’Ungarese, but this remained a sparkling account. The ‘local colour’ was for my taste excessively underlined, although the audience clearly lapped it up. Fun though it was, less might have been more in this context.

Miklós Perényi has been a long-time collaborator of Schiff’s; one could certainly sense the musical understanding between them, likewise the respect of the orchestral musicians for the soloist. Perényi brought a cultured, ever-musical tone and line to everything he played, if the outer movements in particular lacked the last ounce of ‘personality’ in the manner of a Rostropovich or a Du Pré. (Some readers, I appreciate, will doubtless respond, ‘Thank goodness for that.’) Not only the aria-like slow movement but also its predecessor received a properly ‘sung’ account. The cadenza to the Adagio was magical in its dreamlike quality. A fine sense of style from all musicians was continued into the finale: lively, yet not rushed. There were times when I thought the orchestra was pushed too much – by Schiff rather than Perényi – into an ‘accompanying’ role, whereas earlier, the soloist had emerged as first among equals, even playing the bass line in the first movement’s opening tutti (and not just there).

The Drum Roll Symphony welcomed back to the platform a larger orchestra, indeed the largest of the night, trumpets (keyed, as I suppose they would be...) and all. The ‘drum roll’ itself was taken with a sudden fortissimo and diminuendo, followed by a properly dark introduction from bass instruments, which reminded us of the likeness of Haydn’s theme to the Dies irae chant. Some of the exposition and recapitulation sounded a little too genial, but there was compensation in the contrapuntal interplay of the development, leaving us in no doubt of the composer’s astonishing invention. The horns brayed in the coda. After a slightly sour opening, what I might call the ‘directed chamber music’ of the slow movement blossomed and gained character. Again, Haydn’s glorious inventiveness shone through. The extended solo of leader, Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay was superbly performed, exquisitely sweet in tone. When we finally heard the full orchestra, it sounded full indeed, followed by the balm of the Philharmonia’s woodwind. Schiff alternated between one and three beat(s) to a bar in the minuet. This often sounded a little too driven and unsmiling, though the audience found humour (unintended?) in the sound of the horns. As in the earlier symphony, relaxation for the trio was unduly exaggerated. The orchestra made a truly beautiful sound here but the music sometimes lacked a sense of the vital. A little more kinship between minuet and trio would have been welcome. Sadly, the unreliability of natural horns was there for all to hear in the finale’s opening call. (Some would doubtless consider this ‘characterful’; I simply found the intonational difficulties painful.) Otherwise, there was a resplendent full orchestral sound, almost Karajan-like. The movement’s performance was in many respects very good; certainly the orchestra was on top form. However, in the final analysis, Schiff’s reading was a touch on the sectional side, without quite the developmental necessity I heard from Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic in this week a few years ago at the Proms. That, however, was the finest account of a Haydn symphony I have ever heard ‘live’ and there was much to admire here.