Wednesday, October 14, 2015

András Schiff's Austrian Marathon at the SF Symphony

András Schiff, the famous Hungarian-in-exile "pianist, conductor, pedagogue and lecturer," conducted and performed music by Mozart, Haydn and Schubert at the San Francisco Symphony last week in a concert which was close to three hours long with two intermissions. That's a short evening at the opera but a lengthy marathon by symphony concert standards.

The evening started off with Mozart's final piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat Major, with Schiff conducting while also playing the piano. It's a ravishing piece of music, but it sounded a bit too genteel and pretty-white-wig Mozart in Saturday evening's performance. This was especially true of the solo piano sections as Schiff bounced up and down from the piano bench to conduct the orchestra when he wasn't seated at the keyboard. Because this was not a universal opinion, an internet flame war raged over the weekend among a few online music critics who thought it was the the most perfect Mozart performance imaginable and those who did not.

There was no disagreement whatsoever about the piece after intermission, a 1798 Mass in D Minor by Joseph Haydn from late in his long composing career. This particular mass is nicknamed "Lord Nelson" for a number of apocryphal reasons surrounding an important Lord Nelson victory in the Napoleonic Wars.

The performance was stupendous in every way: the conducting by Schiff, the orchestral playing, the singing by four obscure European vocal soloists, and the ever astonishing San Francisco Symphony Chorus who were the real stars of the evening.

The performance was so good that I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the British short story writer, Saki: "People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die." My paraphrase would be any religious system that could produce a musical hymn of praise this fine will also never truly die. (Pictured above left to right are Schiff, chorus director Ragnar Bohlin, soprano Anna Lucia Richter, contralto Britta Schwarz, tenor Werner Gura, and bass Robert Holl.)

Then there was another short intermission while the piano was brought back up to the stage, and the four soloists along with a chamber assortment of choristers cozied up around Schiff who led a 7-song Schubert lieder recital, which felt both bizarre after the grand Haydn Mass and oddly fitting. There seemed to be some overarching theme to the evening's musical selections, private to Schiff, which made the concert more interesting. It's wonderful that the SF Symphony was willing to accommodate that vision.

The great voice of the evening was undoubtedly soprano Anna Lucia Richter above, barely out of the conservatory, who spun one beautiful line of sound after another throughout Davies Hall, which is a tricky place to project. During the Schubert lieder section, she sang two songs about Spring after tenor Werner Gura sang two sexually suggestive songs about fishermen and nature. The great performance in this section was from bass Robert Holl, who had sounded old and wooly in the Mass, but who turned a gravedigger's lament at being alone while dying himself into a completely harrowing mini-opera without ever treading into the maudlin. Bracketing the Schubert lieder section was contralto Britta Scharz who sang the same song twice, Standchen. It seems that Schubert spent a lot of time in taverns and he got confused by a sudden commission. It was supposed to be for a teenage soprano and a girls' chorus but he wrote it for a mens' chorus instead, and then rewrote it when he was apprised of his mistake. We got to hear both versions, which was lovely.


Janos Gereben said...

Dear brilliant (although deaf-to-true-Mozart) writer: kudos for the review and, especially, the photos, but I'd like to add one item: Schiff's accompaniment of the Schubert lieder, which you don't mention, was an Affair to Remember.

In everything Schiff does (especially the Mozart...:), for me he channels Quasthoff: it's the music, the music, the music, never the performer. That's one reason the orchestra applauded him (after the Mozart, but let that go) with such genuine enthusiasm and affection.

Unknown said...

I have to agree that the Lieder were particularly well done, from Schiff's lively accompaniment to the singers wholehearted interpretations. Unusual in such a large concert space but well done and totally delightful. :)