There cannot be many more spectacular views enjoyed during a concert interval than that from the terrace of the Salle des Combins, the main venue for the Verbier Festival. Mountain peaks kiss the heavens as the sun dips reluctantly behind the Alps. The chattering audience – overwhelmingly well-heeled Swiss patrons of a certain age – enjoys a glass of wine, rubbing shoulders with celebrated musicians who've also come to listen. It's tremendously civilised... just like the performance they'd come to hear, featuring Sir András Schiff, one of the most civilised pianists on the planet.

View from the Salle des Combins © Mark Pullinger
View from the Salle des Combins
© Mark Pullinger

In recent years, Schiff has taken to directing concertos from the keyboard, but for this concert with the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra – young musicians drawn from all over Europe – he also conducted Haydn's Symphony no. 88 in G major. Schiff's style is straightforward and non-interventionist. Without score or baton, he vigorously beats time with cupped hands, open palms then inviting solo contributions. Occasionally, arms akimbo, he conducts merely with a few nods of his head. Schiff's Haydn smiles amiably. Speeds are unforced, the humour is gentle rather than of the belly laugh variety, even in the witty finale. Woodwinds were blended perfectly, a smooth homogenised sound. Strings (with antiphonal violins) sculpted phrases with care. The sedate Largo gave way to a stately minuet and an even slower Ländler – a very refined country dance here, although the drone gave a nice peasant touch. Schiff took the finale at a fair lick, verging on brusque, but always staying on the side of good taste.

Sir András Schiff and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra © Aline Paley | Verbier Festival
Sir András Schiff and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Aline Paley | Verbier Festival

At the piano, Schiff's style remains unchanged. Favouring the Bösendorfer's subtle palette of colours, he brought tremendous clarity to Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D minor BWV1052, overcoming a slightly garbled opening. With the piano angled ever so slightly towards the orchestra, he elicited springy lightness from the VFCO strings in the opening movement. Everything was taken at an unhurried, almost soporific pace, with the sort of plushly upholstered Adagio that is rarely encountered these days, where period instruments – or an historically informed approach at least – predominate.

As someone who far prefers the pungency of a period instrument approach, I struggled initially with Schiff's Beethoven. I can take polite Haydn or Bach, but Beethoven's “Emperor” Concerto shouldn't sound polite. It needs vigour and revolutionary fire. Once I had reconciled myself to Schiff's stylistic choice, however, there was much to enjoy, from his imitation of a soaring eagle as he conducted the orchestral tutti, to his superbly controlled trill and the lovely tone at the piano's first solo entry. He never tried to dominate the orchestra – there was very little sense of struggle or combat in Schiff's approach – just a friendly dialogue, his fingers bouncing off the keys in the lightest attack. Rapt moments in the Adagio poco mosso second movement led to a buoyant spring in the energetic finale, though nothing was overblown, nothing was forced.

Sir András Schiff © Aline Paley | Verbier Festival
Sir András Schiff
© Aline Paley | Verbier Festival

After bringing each section to its feet, including making a detour to the rear of the platform to shake the timpanist's hand, Schiff accepted the stamps and bow taps of the orchestra. Sheepishly returning to the piano stool for an encore, he announced: “Just one.” He gave us Mozart... then Bach for good measure. Both, of course, were eminently civilised. The Verbier audience approved.