Internationally renowned pianist Sir András Schiff directed the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal from the keyboard in Haydn and Beethoven concertos. For reasons kept from the public, Schiff withdrew from conducting the second half of this concert and was replaced by OSM assistant conductor Thomas Le Duc-Moreau.

Sir András Schiff and the OSM
© Antoine Saito

Schiff is a 66-year-old Hungarian whose parents were Holocaust survivors. Although comfortable with repertoire in all periods, he is revered for his affinity with Baroque and Classical works, particularly Bach, Schubert and Beethoven.

The concert began with Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major, known as “no. 11.” Very quickly, Schiff proved that he is a pianist in possession of both blazing technique and exquisite musicality. He drew a gorgeous tone quality from the Maison Symphonique’s Bösendorfer. The opening Vivace featured a virtuosic cadenza. The slow movement was somewhat less engaging. The final Rondo in Hungarian style was particularly popular in Haydn’s time. This movement’s theme is more likely Serbian, Bosnian or Dalmatian in origin. Here, Schiff’s interpretation was sublime: his playing was effervescent while the OSM’s accompaniment lacked exuberance.

Next came Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2. This work was premiered in Vienna on the 25th March 1795, with the 24-year-old composer at the piano. It was Beethoven’s piano playing that precipitated his renown in the Austrian capital. Although the least performed of the five Beethoven piano concertos, the work nonetheless constitutes an engaging synthesis of musical traditions at the end of the 18th century.

In this piece, the OSM assumed a more prominent role than in the preceding Haydn and were able to establish a symbiotic relationship with their superstar soloist. The more lyrical sections of the opening Allegro con Brio were particularly expressive. Schiff’s cadenza at the end of this movement hinted at his deep understanding of the music of Bach. The closing section of the middle Adagio movement was beautifully rendered. The final Rondo was rousing. The Montreal audience immediately leapt to its feet at the conclusion for a protracted and heartfelt ovation. In his encore, Schiff was able to establish an atmosphere in which one could hear a pin drop. The fact that the entire audience remained entranced until the final chord fully decayed attests to this.

Thomas Le Duc-Moreau conducting the OSM
© Antoine Saito

Schiff was slated to conduct the second half of this program, but was replaced by Le Duc-Moreau. Brahms' Tragic Overture was substituted for the initially programmed Bartók Dance Suite no. 77. This is unfortunate, as the Bartók would have provided more breadth to this evening that was billed as a tribute to composers of Central Europe.

Currently in his twenties, Montrealer Le Duc-Moreau is the youngest assistant conductor in the OSM’s long history. Zubin Mehta was roughly the same age when he served as the OSM’s music director in the early 1960s. Although mechanical at times, Le Duc-Moreau elicited some spirited and energetic playing from the orchestra. It was evident that this maestro has established an impressive rapport with the OSM. His horizontal hearing is acute and this resulted in an impressive degree of transparency in the music making that occurred under his direction.

In the Tragic Overture of Brahms, the horns, oboes and contrabassoon (Michael Sundhill) were stellar contributors.

This concert concluded with the same composer’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. (The theme was more likely to have been written by Corelli.) This work represents Brahms’ initial foray into composing for orchestra. The orchestration of the theme (with apologies to violinists and violists) constitutes an early indication of the composer’s genius. In this composition, as well as with the preceding piece, the OSM’s playing was at times too heavy. In these variations, the lighter sections could have danced more. Nonetheless Le Duc-Moreau maintained excellent overall balance. It was wonderful to hear the contribution of the triangle to the exuberance of the Finale.

Amongst the audience, there seemed to be virtually no disappointment that Le Duc-Moreau had replaced Schiff on the podium for the second half of this concert: congratulations to him for having risen to this considerable challenge.