Just got back from a Philharmonia concert at Royal Festival Hall. It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good, and at rate it was interesting enough to merit a write-up. The music was superb–Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, plus a bit of Mendelssohn–but the main interest revolves around conductor András Schiff, a pianist who has, over the past few years, occasionally popped up in conducting roles around Europe. And, indeed, in a few ways he’s still not totally ready to be a professional conductor.
Now, I’m no conductor myself, and have no experience on a podium. Far be it from me to criticize artists who know what they’re doing much more than I do. But some elements of Schiff’s style are a little bit amateurish.
1. Baton technique. Of course, I don’t know much about how to use a baton. But Schiff used it like no other conductor I’ve seen. Half the time, he used it to actually keep time, one-two etc., but then sometimes he would begin directing a specific section with his left hand, and then his baton hand would stop moving entirely, and the stick would just hang in midair as if it was forgetting to do something. On other occasions, he would conduct, but from waist-height. At one point in the Brahms his hands were literally at his sides, as if in pockets, while the music was playing.
2. No-baton technique. Sometimes Schiff would randomly put the stick down and conduct with his hands for a few minutes, then randomly pick it up again. This was especially weird at the end of the Dvořák Cello Concerto’s slow movement, an oasis of gorgeous calm for which he solemnly set down his baton, until he got bored and started using it again for no obvious musical reason.
3. The “loud=fast, quiet=slow” fallacy. This popped up in the scherzo of the Brahms symphony, which started off snappy and gradually cooled down as Schiff observed the spurious musical rule that loud things should be quick and soft things should be slow. Worse was the Mendelssohn Hebrides overture, which alternated between kind of heavy and pretty exciting. On the other hand, this technique actually worked at the start of the Dvořák, when an unusually hectic opening gave way to a French horn solo that felt like a warm embrace.
The Brahms Fourth Symphony was fairly slow, an attempt to be sort of warm and lovely, only this is tragic music, you could even say self-destructive music. So the violins at the opening swooned and various pauses throughout were just a hair too long. On the other hand, the slow movement was wonderful, up until the climax. Near the end there’s a moment where the full string section, acting as a choir of sorts, presents a hymn-theme plainly and beautifully. Schiff, following his aforementioned rule of thumb, figured that the real climax, emotionally, must be the loud bit for drums and horns which comes immediately after that, and only at that point did he let the Philharmonia strings give it their all. The finale avoided this temptation for softness and “the simple way out,” though, and was highlighted by a really fantastic Philharmonia flute solo.
Surprisingly, the Dvořák was another story. Here Schiff’s conducting was vigorous, energetic, and impassioned, matching the demeanor of over-the-top (in a good way!) cellist Steven Isserlis. It’s a real Celeb Lookalike duo: Isserlis looks exactly like author Steven Pinker…
…and, at his current age, András Schiff is starting to look like a slightly poofier-haired version of the magician Teller:
DIGRESSION: If you’re bored, what you need to do right now is check out this YouTube video of a magic trick so brilliant it fooled Teller. And the trick is pulled by a comedian, so you’re guaranteed a good time. Go on. Click.
Anyway, the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Schiff and Isserlis were perfectly matched: they both believe in an energized, impassioned, sort of hyper-romantic approach. Isserlis, of course, threw himself totally into it: stomping his feet, breathing audibly (I was in row E on the far right), occasionally sounding rough and scratchy from overexcitement, yet his softest passages are exquisite. The Philharmonia made up for some serious technical snafus in the Brahms with glorious solo work throughout, especially from the first horn in the first movement and the horn duo in the second. By the (very well-judged) ending, a couple of audience members were actually on their feet.
The audience seemed unusually ill; during the Dvořák, somebody in the back had a sneezing fit that sounded exactly like a water balloon fight.
All in all, my attitude toward the Brahms is probably “just glad to hear it live,” though the LPO is doing it with Vladimir Jurowski in May (coupling: Christian Gerhaher sings Mahler). The Dvořák was a really rousing good time, though. Steven Isserlis is the perfect concert performer: so visually arresting (all that hair flops back and forth like mad) and so caution-to-the-wind committed that he rivets your attention, even while you suspect you couldn’t stand to hear him on CD. He even threw in an encore, a 20th-century-sounding work for solo cello which was a mystery to me, but beautiful, and showcased his penchant for holding an entire auditorium rapt with attention even while playing as quietly as he could sensibly play.