For a long time, Seattle audiences have made clear their admiration for the artistry of Sir András Schiff whenever he comes into town for solo recitals – including one occasion 17 years ago, when his Bösendorfer had an unfortunate encounter with black ice while being transported across the continent and a replacement had to be found at the last minute.

Sir András Schiff
© Nadia F. Romanini

But his return to Benaroya Hall this week felt extra-special. This time, the pianist was making his debut with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, conducting from the keyboard during the programme's first half and then stepping onto the podium, in front of a much-enlarged ensemble, for a meaty second half. All of the fare involved composers especially meaningful to the Hungarian artist, and the progression from solo concertos by Bach and Beethoven to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra had a dramaturgically satisfying logic.

In the opening Keyboard Concerto no. 3 in D major by Bach, Schiff made the music sound tailor-made for his instrument (a Bösendorfer that luckily had suffered no mishaps), not like the transcription of an earlier violin concerto that it actually is. The light touch of ornamental phrases, delightful and smile-inducing, made even the later keyboard seem idiomatic, ascending bass lines emerging with admirable clarity. At the same time, there was a fascinating hint, without making itself intrusive or jarring, of Romantic sensibility, whether in the expressively subtle gradations of dynamics or the softly sustained melodic arc of the Adagio, which was indeed Sempre Piano, almost as if transmitted through the thinnest screen of silk.

Poetry remained in the forefront throughout Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major. With just the right weight and pressure, the opening chords became a magical summons, opening the door into a realm of refined awareness. As in the Bach, Schiff's rhythmic articulation was never mechanical but went straight to the point. Tilted just so from his position at the keyboard, or standing for the stretches when he'd normally be able to take a break, Schiff used minimal hand gestures – a flutter here, a wiggle there – to direct the players. With the second violins to his right, inner lines hummed with unusual clarity. The interweaving of keyboard and ensemble was so artful and chamber-like that the moment of recapitulation actually startled, the piano's sonority creating the illusion of being the orchestra. Shakespearean actors would benefit from close study of the riveting, moment-by-moment details Schiff was able to coax from the cadenza.

Nor were all his insights limited to the keyboard. At first, I questioned whether Schiff's tempo for the first movement's second theme was too restrained, almost Schubertian: I wanted more emphatic contrast. But the choice made more sense as the movement progressed, and suggested a certain breadth that was apposite to his vision of the whole. Schiff subtly underscored the moment that the strings shifted to pizzicato in the middle movement's “taming of the Furies”, so that a simple change in texture reverberated with dramatic significance.

Before launching into Bartók's late-in-life masterpiece, Schiff addressed the audience with some remarks about his fellow Hungarian's precarious state as a refugee in the United States when he composed this Concerto for Orchestra. The pianist has similarly abandoned his homeland in response to the current government's attacks on civil rights. Schiff objected to the convenient position that music and politics are incompatible, that art should be kept apart from the political and enjoyed as a “pure” experience on its own terms. “In my modest opinion”, he said, “they are inseparable”. Meaning, as I understood it, not that music can change the world per se but that it can enhance our sense of empathy and shared humanity, and help immunise us against attempts by others to reduce that humanity.

Ascending the podium, Schiff showed himself to be a great humanist, with his vivid and stirring interpretation of a work with which he obviously identifies so closely. The Seattle Symphony players remained unwavering in their concentration and established a tangible sense of partnership with the guest conductor – who used his expressive hands in lieu of a baton.

In some ways, Schiff revealed a very different artist in this role: a Doppelgänger motivated by the same values but more prone to take risks, as in the thrilling intensity with which he led transition from the gloom of the introduction to the main Allegro. The central Elegia shivered with dark and perhaps grieving mystery, but also admitted in light, while Schiff leaned into a wicked sense of humour for the Shostakovich send-up in the “interrupted intermezzo”. His architectural command prepared the way for genuine, heartfelt, relieving exuberance in the finale, and the players summoned all their energy of the feverish dash in the final measures.