Standing ovation after standing ovation. The packed hall at St George’s received a treat in form of an evening of Haydn played by fantastic musicians. The stage was filled with energy from start to end in a programme, from the Oxford Philomusica’s ‘Best of Haydn’ series, which displayed a variety of Joseph Haydn’s works. Haydn (1732-1809) is recognised as the ‘father’ of the symphony and occupied a pivotal role in the history of the piano sonata. How better to pay homage to him than to perform some of his major piano works and finish it all off with a symphony?

András Schiff, © Sheila Rock
András Schiff,
© Sheila Rock

András Schiff commenced the concert with Fantasia in C, Hob XVII: 4 (Presto) which was the latest but the shortest of the Hadyn compositions. To an amateur player, the theme, which is based on a popular song of the time Do Bäuren hat d’Katz valor’n (‘The Farmer’s Wife Has Lost Her Cat’), would not pose much difficulty. The piece, however, soon becomes a lot more testing. Watching András Schiff play this intricate piece, it was clear that the challenge was met with ease. There are crossed hands, glissandi and – probably the most enjoyable to Schiff – sudden changes of pace, after each of which he restarted again at the normal tempo, a smile breaking out on his face, much to the delight of the audience. This was much the same throughout the Sonata in G minor, Hob XVI: 44, in which he gave Haydn the acknowledgment he deserved for his piano sonatas. No-one is certain of the date it was composed, but it has been suggested that Haydn had waited for a few more people to own pianos before actually publishing it. András Schiff, born in Hungary, is well known for his versatility as a musician and was wonderfully displayed at this concert, performing solo, with an orchestra, and conducting.

The impeccably dressed Oxford Philomusica (Oxford's professional symphony orchestra) joined Schiff on stage to perform the Piano Concerto in D, Hob XVIII: 11 (1784). In under a decade they have become one of the leading orchestras in the United Kindgom and it is easy to see why. It was a mean feat to keep everyone together from one side of the Steinway, behind its large top, but the Oxford Philomusica played with grace and ease as they navigated their way through the piece. After the spritely Finale, in the fashion of a Hungarian folk-dance, the audience were on their feet for the applause. The piano concerto was superb.

After András Schiff’s emotional performance of the Variations in F minor, Hob XVII: 6, just as the audience assumed to concert couldn’t get any better and three standing ovations later, Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 in D, ‘London’ (c. 1795) provided the finale to a perfect evening. Watching András Schiff play around with the Oxford Philomusica, conducting without a score and drawing the musical lines with his hands, was a real treat. The Philomusica were very receptive to Schiff as a conductor, and whilst lots of smiles were exchanged on stage throughout the symphony, it was performed to a very high standard. The orchestra were attentive to detail and, in passing melodies between instruments and the timpani player Tristan Fry, took the audience by the hand and pulled them in to the music, with the great ‘call to arms’ at the opening of the symphony.

All in all, the whole programme was bold, attention-grabbing and a fantastic success. The rapturous applause and foot-stomping turned to sighs as the house lights went up and the reality came that there would be no encore. Everyone wanted more.

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