Philharmonia / Schiff

Schubert: Symphonies 8 & 9; 'Reliquie' Sonata

Royal Festival Hall, 9 December 2007 5 stars

András SchiffThis final concert in András Schiff's Schubert series with the Philharmonia seemed very much aimed at those already converted to the composer's music. I'm sure hardened Schubertians would have been able to forgive the fact that the concert – which didn't include any encores – went on for twenty five minutes longer than scheduled. Others might have been less appreciative of the 'Great' Symphony's 'heavenly length', had it not been for Schiff's approach. Admirably, he presented the programme – from memory - without any gimmicks or histrionics.

After Anton Safronov's completion of the 'Unfinished' symphony (performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in November), it was refreshing to have both this work and the remarkable, similarly unfinished 'Reliquie' Sonata in the first half. Both were presented unapologetically in their incomplete form. Schiff's way with Schubert is informed by a total belief in the quality of the composer's music. His conducting style is characterised by humility; he walks sheepishly onto the stage as a servant of the music and almost looks embarrassed to have to accept applause from the audience. At the piano, his concentration is total but his gestures minimal.

His way with the 'Unfinished' Symphony emphasised the work's structure and lyricism. Both movements were taken more slowly than we are used to, the Allegro moderato first movement in particular. Although this detracted a little from the drama and urgency in places, it lent the movement an almost Brucknerian gravitas and momentum; the climaxes were bolstered by some excellent brass playing, particularly from the trumpets playing on natural instruments. The lyrical second subject was also given space to draw long breaths, phrased with tenderness and care. These characteristics were carried through to a beautifully shaped account of the Andante con moto.

The Piano Sonata in C, D.840 ('Reliquie') was likewise abandoned after just two movements. Schubert also left sketches of subsequent movements but progressed no further. The fragmented nature of this piece was emphasised the fact that Schiff's Bösendorfer was wheeled onto a platform with chairs and music stands stacked to the side and back. It was as if we had stumbled in on the pianist sitting down to play between rehearsals with the orchestra. Schiff was not afraid to emphasise some of Schubert's bare, bleak writing in this work. The sound of his piano could be clangy and, sometimes in the louder passages, ugly. However, he contrasted this with its special, singing tone in the lyrical passages, producing some mesmerising sonorities, especially in the second movement.

After the interval we were treated to a clean, clear and miraculously unfussy reading of the 'Great' C major Symphony. The opening movement unfolded naturally and organically, its melodies growing from one another. The Philharmonia played with precision and produced a luminous, glowing sound. As well as excellent playing once again from the horns, trumpets and trombones, some of the wind solos were exquisite. Even more impressive, though, was the timbre of the wind choir; each instrument and player maintained their character but also managed to blend beautifully.

The Andante con moto, although heavily indebted by Beethoven, also must have exercised an enormous influence on Bruckner. And here, as in the performance of the 'Unfinished' in the first half, Schiff produced a reading that looked forward to the later composer. The big climax, with the horns and trumpets grinding out a resolution with primeval doggedness, was as powerful as I've heard it. After that, I could forgive a few smudges in the trumpet interjections at the main theme's return. The rest of the performance was of similar quality. The Scherzo was fleet-footed and its trio buoyant. The finale was executed with virtuosity and spring.  

Although this was the first of Schiff's mini-series with the Philharmonia I'd heard, I had the feeling of having experienced something special. One could argue that the 'Unfinished' was a little slow, the reading of the 'Great' a little unimaginative and straight or that splitting up the symphonies with a piano sonata a little eccentric – even if this had been the practice at the other concerts. However, these complaints fall flat in the face of the straightforward persuasiveness of Schiff's advocacy of Schubert. His performances are non-interventionist and display not only an obvious love and respect for the composer's works but, more importantly, a willingness and a desire to present them quite simply as they are. His quiet passion is obviously infectious, too, since he inspired the Philharmonia to some glorious playing.

By Hugo Shirley