Schiff focuses on music, not history

February 18, 2000|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Over the past few decades, classical music has become increasingly concerned with notions of historical accuracy. Performers don't consider just the composer's intentions; they also try to emulate the instrumentation and performance practices of his time.

But after hearing pianist Andras Schiff playing with and conducting the Baltimore Symphony last night, let me say this: Historicity is bunk.

As Schiff understands, the point isn't to offer the past recaptured, but to present each work in a way that speaks clearly and vividly to the audience in modern terms. That's precisely what he did at the Meyerhoff yesterday, presenting a program of Beethoven, Bach and Haydn that greatly illuminated the music -- even if Schiff didn't always adhere to what is considered to be the "proper" way of playing these composers.

His rendering of the Bach Piano Concerto No. 3, for instance, didn't try to reinvent the piano as a more muscular harpsichord. Instead, Sciff took the keyboard part on pianistic terms, trusting the compositional fortitude of the work to carry the day.

As, indeed, it did. Schiff brought a crispness and vivacity to the work, using the piano's percussiveness to emphasize the rhythmic thrust, while taking advantage of its greater sustain on legato passages. He brought such a lithe, singing tone to the right-hand line in the second movement that, for a moment, it was hard to imagine the piece being played any other way.

As illuminating as the Bach was, it could barely hold a candle to his vision of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4. As with the Bach, Schiff conducted from the piano, but here that made a much more profound difference.

Instead of treating the piece as a showcase for the soloist, he frequently pulled the piano back, submerging its voice in that of the orchestra. Not only did this place the composition in sharper focus, allowing us to hear how Beethoven deployed different voices to further the thematic development, it also made the virtuosity of the piano part shine brighter by placing the fleet-fingered runs and knuckle-busting trills in context. Schiff also made spectacular use of the contrast between the orchestral and piano passages in the second movement, bringing an exceptional poignance to the music.

Balancing the program was the Haydn Symphony No. 44, "Trauer" ("Mourning"), which Schiff and the orchestra rendered with elegance and clarity. A pity the horn solos had such a clotted tone and soggy articulation.

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