There is no doubt that, during a decades-long interpretative career, with quite a large repertoire as a pianist and a limited one as a conductor, Sir András Schiff has always returned to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He did so again for his subscription series with the San Francisco Symphony.

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

All three works selected were representative for the secular vein in Bach’s output and can be associated with his involvement with Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum. There were few conducting gestures during the two concertos that Schiff led from the keyboard, but the reduced orchestra and its Assistant Concertmaster, Wyatt Underhill, followed, supported and interacted with the piano without any hiccups. Barely using the pedal, only in the slow middle parts, Schiff displayed his usual confidence in handling multiple intersecting voices and in bringing to light the Italian influences that permeate this music. If you closed your eyes, instead of a Bösendorfer you could hear the violin or the oboe d’amore, the solo instruments for which these compositions were originally written, before Bach arranged them for the harpsichord.

The version of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major was clearly comme il faut, the conductor underlining the dance character, the French flavor of each and every movement. But there were no special sparks flying around.

Bach’s shadow was more than evident in the lengthy Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) played after the intermission. This doesn't come as any surprise, Felix Mendelssohn having been a great admirer of Bach’s oeuvre. The first performance of the Lobgesang took place in Leipzig (the town were Johann Sebastian was Thomaskantor for the last 27 years of his life) in June 1840. The occasion was a festival celebrating 400 years since Gutenberg invented the movable type printing system and, by extension, the Gutenberg Bible and Martin Luther’s translation of the scriptures. When Lobgesang was published, a year later, the printed score was adorned with a Luther quotation: “Rather I wished to see all the arts, especially music, serving Him who gave and created them” (Mendelssohn always felt he needs to reaffirm his good Lutheran credentials…)

After the composer’s death, the score was published as Symphony no. 2 in B flat major, filling a gap in the catalogue, between the First and the Third (“Scottish”), even if this was never the name that the composer himself used. Nowadays, this musical hybrid, a “Symphony-Cantata on the Words of the Holy Bible” is considered more of a sacred vocal work than a symphonic one. Beethoven being the other musical God in Mendelssohn’s pantheon, the structure is obviously inspired by the choral Ninth. The first three parts are purely orchestral. The equivalent to the “Ode to Joy” is a fully-fledged cantata in nine movements, mostly separated by minimal caesurae. The source of inspiration is not only Bach but also Handel (via Haydn’s The Creation). Its focal and most original point is the aria “Stricke des Todes”, rendered with enveloping warmth by tenor Michael Jankosky. His duet with soprano Jennifer Mitchell in “Drum sing ich mit meinem Liede” was well balanced. The latter displayed a powerful, rounded, voice, occasionally shrill in the upper register. Mitchell’s other duet, “Ich harrete des Herrn”, (with mezzo Margaret Lisi) was full of gravitas. More than any of the soloists, the Symphony Chorus, prepared by Ragnar Bohlin, was the shining light of this performance, especially in “Nun danket alle Gott”. Guided by Schiff’s experienced hand, the chorus and the orchestra demonstrated a full mastery of Mendelssohn's intricate contrapuntal tapestry. If the orchestral part of Lobgesang seemed a tad long, it had its beautiful moments, particularly in the Allegretto where Schiff brought forward hints of Mendelssohn’s delicate and glittering music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The composer’s intent was to unify the entire opus around a declamatory motif, perfectly heralded by the SFS trombones and reappearing many times. Nevertheless, there is little sense of the “cantata” organically growing from the “symphony” and that’s probably the biggest weakness of the work.

In retrospect, many works of art have had a meandering “life” with respect to their public appreciation. Listening to Lobgesang, it seems hard to understand why this opus is not included in the standard repertoire of major orchestral ensembles (this week’s performances were the first in SFS’ history). In a musical climate where there is a general feeling that posterity has not been very generous to Mendelssohn’s oeuvre, we should be truly grateful to Sir András Schiff for drawing our attention to a meritorious score.