Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3; Sibelius: Suite No. 2 Op. 66; Janácek: Sinfonietta

Schiff, Hallé Orchestra/Elder

Royal Albert Hall, 23 July 2011 4 stars

SchiffWith the commendable programming of Sibelius' music in the first half followed by Bartók and Janácek after the interval, I expected to feel on cherished home grounds during this concert.

All three of these composers were considerably inspired by their national heritage and, in a manner of speaking, they were related. For some thousand or so years Hungarians and Finns were thought to be closely related – lately this theory has been challenged – while Janácek's Moravia and Bartók's Hungary were not only parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918 but they were geographically close too. So for me, a British Hungarian (or a Hungarian Brit), the entire programme indicated music close from home. In the event, I was slightly disappointed.

Without doubt the Hallé orchestra fields excellent players. Perhaps with one exception all principal players are as good as any of their colleagues in any of the world's great orchestras. The rank and file too are clearly distinguished. Surely their performance of Janácek's Sinfonietta, the closing work in their concert, should have been explosive but, to this pair of ears, it turned into an anti-climax after András Schiff's magnificent delivery of Bartók's third piano concerto.

Janácek, as Bartók, utilised folk music elements in his compositions but the spirit of folk dance and spontaneity were conspicuous by their absence in Mark Elder's reading of this masterpiece. And so was Janácek's glorification of the 'contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his courage, strength and determination to fight for victory'. The great opening fanfare for thirteen brass players and timpani (first movement) was played with a noble tone quality but with repetitions realised identically – surely a composer does not indicate repetitions to be the same in terms of performance – and without any diction, that is without any accentuation.

The second movement failed to dance or even sing in the few contrasting cantabile motives. The singing style was particularly lacking in the harp/wind passages where the cantilena wind opposes the frantic harp. The third movement was almost beautiful but lacked nuances and the remaining two movements were delivered as the previous three. Elder did not tell us a story yet Janácek subtitled his movements to indicate their meaning: 1) Fanfares, 2) The Castle, 3) The Queen's Monastery, 4) The Street, 5) The Town Hall.

Composed – that is, put together – in 1912, Sibelius' second suite (the second set of Historical Scenes) had its origins in the composer’s earlier six-movement Finland Awakes. Eventually three of these movements became Finlandia while the remaining three turned into the second suite. With its relentless drive forward, the first movement ('The Hunt') seemed to suit Elder eminently while in its atmospheric second movement ('Love Song') Sir Mark inspired care and gentleness. The third movement presented charm and humour by composer and performers alike.

Sibelius' seventh symphony was an excellent showpiece for the Hallé's strength. Difficult instrumental solos were delivered evidently effortlessly, the chamber music dialogues between wind and strings (or between any other sections) were exemplary and Sir Mark created a warm, atmospheric string sound in the opening Adagio (and elsewhere, when required). But the performance was static, lacked the excitement which one can assume from the pages of the score. For instance, the Vivacissimo section was fast but it did not feel like going forward on account of the lack of diction (accentuation) which I already mentioned in connection with the performance of Janácek's Sinfonietta.

Although clearly an exemplary exponent of great many composers – in particular Bach, Beethoven and Schubert – András Schiff's musical mother-tongue is surely Bartók. I deduce this partly from Schiff's upbringing and education in Budapest, and partly – indeed, more importantly – from his insightful interpretation of the third piano concerto.

It is true that, compared to the technically almost impossible first and second piano concertos, the third is relatively easy. Bartók composed it for his second wife, the petit young Ditta Pásztory with rather small hands. Bartók was dying of leukaemia and he most probably hoped that this concerto would be a good vehicle to generate an income for Pásztory. But, as Schiff is quoted in the programme notes, this concerto is 'like a swansong…a wise man’s farewell, full of resignation'. For his part, at this concert Schiff delivered a wise man’s insight from composer and performer alike. It was a meeting of great musical minds, witnessed by some 5000 people in the Royal Albert Hall. The Hallé and Mark Elder adjusted well – I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during rehearsals – and thus assured the resulting perfection.

What makes Schiff's interpretation so great? In the first place he greatly respects Bartók, including the composer's preoccupation with details as well as the overall structure. Schiff has musical diction in abundance; he is fully aware that he needs to read the composer's intentions between the notes as well as the notes themselves. In Schiff's interpretation there is no doubt about Bartók's accentuation, regardless whether marked on the page or not. (This concerto was left unfinished as Bartók died before he completed the last 17 bars.)

Voice leading is also crystal clear in Schiff's performance, so he provides strong harmonic cornerstones in his left hand bass notes. Bartók held that rhythm was extremely important and Schiff produces tight rhythmic patterns. Indeed, I have never heard the second movement’s bird motive in such a strongly rhythmic presentation. At the same time, Schiff is lyrical: the hymn of the second movement was both passionate and highly disciplined. (I would have preferred the string players to draw their bows slower during this religious dialogue between piano and strings.)

Humour is ever present in Bartók and so in Schiff's playing. Schiff provides tonal colour in abundance and uses the piano both as a percussive instrument as well as a tool to sing on. Last but not least, Schiff displays real creativity during his performance: he allows the music to breathe and applies agogics (rubato within the bar) to keep the music alive. Bartók must have been smiling in Heaven during Schiff’s performance and I for one definitely felt lifted to Heaven for the duration. Schiff's encore of Schubert's Hungarian Melody might have been tongue in cheek: there is nothing Hungarian about this music (or about the Hungarian dances and rhapsodies by Liszt, Brahms, etc). However, a certain type of folk music influence with augmented seconds is clear and Schiff delivered with nostalgia but without sentimentality. It was a fitting farewell after the Bartók concerto.

By Agnes Kory

Photo: András Schiff

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