After a long absence, Schiff and the CSO strike sparks in a lively return

Fri Nov 03, 2017 at 5:35 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Conductor-pianist Andras Schiff performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.
Conductor-pianist András Schiff performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

One stared at the program book in disbelief Thursday night. Could it really be 22 years since András Schiff last performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

Much has happened in the intervening decades, not least the Hungarian pianist—long resident in London–being knighted. And while Schiff has continued to be a Chicago presence with regular solo recitals, Thursday’s belated CSO return showed him wearing two hats as both pianist and conductor.

Conducting soloists are increasingly attractive to symphony orchestras in these cash-strapped times–largely because the bivalved arrangement saves them a fee. Yet the results are more often than not mixed.

Such was not the case Thursday with Schiff leading a Classical-size CSO chamber orchestra in a program that roved breezily from Bach to Bartók with stops for Haydn and Beethoven en route.

Far from being an awkward reconciliation, Schiff and the CSO players appeared to get on like old friends at a reunion party. There was a lot of smiling from the ranks and clear enjoyment of their collaboration, with vigorous bow applause for Schiff from the players at the end of the night.

That musical camaraderie was most apparent in the second half with the pianist conducting from the keyboard. Schiff favors a European-style layout: violins split, basses and cellos behind on the left, violas on the right, his Bösendorfer raked at an angle between the strings. 

At just ten minutes, Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056, is not a work most touring pianists would seek to perform. In fact the last CSO performance was in 1991 by Schiff, also conducting from the keyboard.

Perhaps the pianist’s warm legato style feels a bit old-fashioned by today’s Baroque standard, but outer movements were polished and vigorous, and Schiff brought poised elegance to the solo line of the famous Largo against string pizzicatos. The CSO players pretty much handled the gracious accompaniment themselves with a few unnecessary cues by the pianist.

One was initially dubious about the same arrangement in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which would seem to require a firmer hand on the orchestra. A separate conductor likely would have brought tighter coordination in places, as well as more detailing and clearly defined textures.

Yet there was clear gain in the freewheeling spontaneity of this Beethoven performance, which had an infectious give-and-take between the soloist and CSO members. Schiff would sometimes take off in his solos at a tempo twice as fast as the orchestra passage that preceded it, much to the bemusement of the players who quickly and efficiently scurried to catch up.

The chamber music feel was accented by Schiff’s seat-of-the-pants playing and direction. Rather than conduct from the keyboard, he led the opening orchestral introduction and other passages standing a few feet away from the bench. Part of the fun was seeing if the pianist would get back in position quickly enough for his next solo entrance, which he always did, often waiting till the last minute.

Schiff’s forthright musical style has always been one of solid musical integrity rather than virtuosic razzle-dazzle and so too here. Yet he brought a sense of subversive joie de vivre to his Beethoven–relishing minor left-hand figures and slowing and accelerating in unexpected places. 

Others may find greater expressive depth in the slow movement but Schiff’s graceful solo line was equally convincing. The rambunctious finale was pure delight–the pianist and players batting the syncopated main theme back and forth like an exciting tennis match, and the soloist making the most of the rhythmic backflips and false endings en route to a fizzing coda.

It was good to have the wind principals back in the house and the stylish contributions from clarinetist Stephen Williamson and flutist Stefan Ragnar Hoskuldsson accented the lively collaborative spirit of this performance.

Music of Haydn remains sorely underrepresented, so it was good to have the evening lead off with his Symphony No. 88.

Schiff showed himself a fine Haydn hand. His close dynamic marking highlighted a buoyant and witty first movement, as well as conveying village-band rusticity in the drone theme of the Menuetto.

At times one wanted a tauter grip with Schiff’s relaxed style sounding a bit Romanticized in the slow movement. But with such superb string playing it’s hard to complain. Under Schiff’s direction the players sold every witty turn and rhythmic rim shot in the finale.

Oddly, it was music by Schiff’s compatriot Bela Bartók, the Divertimento for Strings, that offered the most mixed performance.

The Hungarian composer here retools Concerto grossi form into his own style, with some pungent national color. While it may be one of Bartók’s lighter works, Thursday’s performance felt too soft and laid-back for a score that needs greater incisiveness and rhythmic bite. The more unsettling qualities felt smoothed over, especially in the Molto adagio, with the music lacking grip and dramatic tension–too little sense of danger lurking in the shadows.

The bumptious final movement fared best with the CSO strings putting across the earthy qualities, and concertmaster Robert Chen bringing fire to his solos in Bartok’s Hungarian brand of country fiddling.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “After a long absence, Schiff and the CSO strike sparks in a lively return”

  1. Posted Nov 05, 2017 at 10:20 pm by Patricia Collins Jones

    I am so glad you mentioned the tempo fluctuations in the last movement of the Beethoven! I found myself being both perplexed and annoyed….also thinking what am I not understanding? Best wishes, Pat

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