Chamber Orchestra of Europe/András Schiff

Mendelssohn and Schumann

National Concert Hall, Dublin, 11 February 2008 4.5 stars

Andras SchiffAndrás Schiff made a welcome return to Dublin's National Concert Hall for this concert, performing the dual role of conductor and soloist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Founded only in 1981, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe has garnered a formidable reputation for itself. Consisting of fifty musicians from fifteen countries, the orchestra performs mainly in continental Europe with an illustrious roster of conductors and artists that includes Claudio Abbado, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Leif Ove Andsnes, Bernard Haitink, Anne Sofie von Otter and Mitsuko Uchida.

Under Schiff's baton, the orchestra performed a programme of Mendelssohn and Schumann that easily ranks among some of the most superb orchestral playing I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Although the opening tempo of Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides' Overture was startlingly slow, which allowed little distinction between the first and second subjects, the playing was impeccably controlled. From the outset, nevertheless, the audience was drawn into the surging swells of the Scottish seas and swept into the drama, and the slow character of the opening was utterly transformed by the time it reached a brisk recapitulation. 

The ensuing Schumann Introduction and Allegro Appassionato, Op. 92, saw Schiff seated at the piano in lively dialogue with the orchestra, although it was not until Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40, that he seemed truly comfortable in the position. Little known today, Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto was instantly successful at its premiere in Birmingham in 1837, and remained popular in England throughout the composer's lifetime.  Schiff wasted little time to pause in between each of the work's three movements and conducted with vigour from the keyboard, always in complete control and easy communication with the orchestra. To end the first half of the evening, the audience was treated to a rendition of Schumann's Arabeske, in which Schiff, caressing the keys, drew out points of the inner voices with breathtaking simplicity.

Andras SchiffContinuing the Schumann theme after the interval was his Second Symphony in C major, Op. 61, whose first performance in 1846 was conducted by Mendelssohn. Although it received only a lukewarm response at the time, the work stands now among the greatest essays in nineteenth-century symphonism, dense with thematic recurrences and contrapuntal writing. Whilst Schiff's conducting style is limited as is so often the case when instrumentalists turn to conducting, the orchestra gave a magnificent rendition that was a testament to their individual talents as musicians. Admittedly, Schiff always gave the impression of complete control, but such was the level of commitment from every single member of the ensemble, with particular praise for their leader, that the symphony and indeed the entire evening's repertoire was presented with awe-inspiring clarity, definition and fluency.

Not content to leave the delights there, the orchestra provided no less than two encores: an effortlessly effervescent Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the winds, especially oboe and flute, continued the enchanting conversation that characterised so much of the performance, and music from Schubert's Rosamunde that further showcased the luscious strings.

Future concerts include performances at the Lucerne Festivals at Easter and in September. In November the orchestra will perform Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete and Mozart's Piano Concertos K488 and K491 with Mitsuko Uchida in Birmingham and the Royal Festival Hall in London. Miss at your peril.

By Úna-Frances Clarke

External link: www.coeurope.org

Read recent concert reviews, including Thomas Hampson and Simon Keenlyside's recitals at the Wigmore Hall, here.