Considering Sir András Schiff’s extraordinary career as a pianist, one tends to forget that he has been conducting for decades, viewing any incursion in this realm as an extension of his musicianship. Although he never studied conducting, his gestures are clear and precise, without lacking occasional exuberance. One can easily see that nothing is left to chance or momentary whims. As in his pianistic renditions, everything is well thought and prepared in advance: rhythm, dynamics, the color palette, the motivic organization.

Sir András Schiff © Nadia F Romanini
Sir András Schiff
© Nadia F Romanini

Schiff has always been interested in the music of one composer – Johann Sebastian Bach – and, by extension, to any opus that is somehow a reflection of the master’s way of thinking. The carefully selected program he conducted as part of the New York Philharmonic’s subscription series was no exception. He chose only works belonging to composers for whom he feels a real affinity. Schiff divided the evening in two parts: a fully orchestral one before the intermission and a second one leading the ensemble from the keyboard. He started with the lesser known Symphony no. 80 in D minor by Joseph Haydn, a music having the disadvantage of missing an ear-catching nickname but a true gem. Placing the second violins at his right – as he did for the entire evening, often seeming to elicit from the group more than a regular involvement – Schiff led a balanced performance, perhaps lacking some emphasis on contrasts.

From the Sturm und Drang like beginning to the syncopated finale, he exposed though, with outmost clarity, the music’s underlying architecture, including the division of the first part into several paragraphs, separated by predefined moments of respite. An especially delicate moment was the Trio with two pairs of winds – oboe and horn followed by flute and bassoon – chirping above whispering strings.

Arguably, the apex of the evening was a version of Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, a piece composed in August 1939 as a command from the Swiss Maecenas, Paul Sacher. There is little doubt that András Schiff is very close to the music of Bartók, given not only the shared Hungarian roots but also the composer’s direct debt, in his structural thinking and his approach to polyphony, to Bach. Bartók’s Divertimento, presumably inspired by 18th-century models, rather evokes the Baroque Concerto grosso, with its multi-layered texture and its dialogues between the concertino group of strings first chairs and the ripieno. Schiff maintained a perfect balance in this tapestry of instrumental voices, never letting one shine too much. Obviously, it was easier for him then for other interpreters to convey the particularities of Bartók’s language inspired, syncopated idiom and to bring forward the transmogrified elements of Hungarian folklore in the two Allegros. The contrasting, dark Molto adagio, with its partially overlapping themes, incursions in atonality, and frequent metronome marking changes sounded, as it should, quite far from an exercise in neo-Baroque.

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in A major, BWV 1055 is a transcription of an earlier concerto for oboe d’amore. Schiff’s interpretation, with its characteristic clear articulation and avoidance of the sustaining pedal, was better suited for the dancing rhythms of the first and last movements than for the Larghetto, where the woodwind’s plaintive tone would have originally been in full display. The orchestra, well-coordinated with the piano, seemed to lack, at times, sufficient enthusiasm.

The best-known work of the evening, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, was devoid, in Schiff’s vision, of all Romantic hyperbole. The pianist demonstrated his distaste for virtuosic display, emphasizing instead beautifully molded secondary lines, Schumann’s extraordinary gift not for well-shaped forms but for miniature thematic motives. The pianist-conductor underlined the chamber-music like character prevalent in multiple segments of the concerto, with several exquisite dialogues between the soloist and Liang Wang’s oboe, Pascual Martínez Forteza’s clarinet or the cellos. Any difficulty in rendering the contrapuntal elements and in reining the rhythmic ambiguities of the Finale were masterly solved.