Now in his 88th year, pianist Paul Badura-Skoda shows no sign of slowing up, with two new discs already appearing this year and concerts planned in Istanbul, London, Germany and a tour of Taiwan next June. But he is also the most quintessential of Viennese performers, the Classical repertoire at the centre of his concerts, and his primary task to “pass on the torch”. On Tuesday night he played a typically idiosyncratic recital to a packed audience in the Brahms-Saal of Vienna’s Musikverein: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and “reinterpretations” of Johann Strauss by Otto Schulhof. The warmth of response and Badura-Skoda’s informal introductions made it a typically Viennese event by a much-loved son of the city. But Badura-Skoda is much more than that; over a period of 70 years (he studied with Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the first conductors to engage him), he has continually redefined his attitude to the Classical repertoire and has been at the forefront of authentic instrument performance. Only three years ago he issued three recordings of Schubert’s late B flat Sonata played on instruments of the 1820s, 1920s and present day.

Paul Badura-Skoda © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Paul Badura-Skoda
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

At the Musikverein, Badura-Skoda made do with a full Steinway D, but brought a range of colour and articulation to his playing reflecting a lifetime’s experience of playing these works. Perhaps rather alarming for those used to the clinical perfection of the digital age, Badura-Skoda continually celebrates the art of live performance, taking risks, responding to the moment; sometimes with a handful of smudged notes, but often colouring a phrase like no-one before. But most impressive is his grasp of the structure of the works he plays, projecting a big line, running through his performances like a bar of iron.

The recital was built around two large late Classical sonatas by Beethoven (the Waldstein) and Schubert, the late D major, D850. The opening of the Beethoven was full of energy and forwardly-propelled motion, but curiously detached, almost as if we were witnessing the music in its purest state, without the intervention of a younger man’s passion. This paid great dividends in the finale where the main theme was revealed with great clarity and flow, flowering and flowing like a great river.

Yet Badura-Skoda continued to subvert expectations; in the second movement of the Schubert, a central climax of overwhelming weight and fire suddenly erupted out of almost nowhere. As a whole, the Schubert sonata gained from his simplicity of approach, creating a fine sense of forward momentum without dwelling on its “heavenly length”. In this respect, in the second movement, Badura-Skoda kept Schubert’s marking, con moto, at the forefront of his performance.

A link with the past came through the transcriptions of Johann Strauss by Otto Schulhof, with whom Badura-Skoda studied. Composed in 1930, these reflect the world of Strauss through the harmonic idiom of the 1920s, sometimes in a mood of uproarious virtuosity, as in the Fledermaus-Polka, sometimes magically in the case of the Pizzicato-Polka, transformed into a mesmerising music-box transcription, reflecting something of the world of the glass harmonica of Mozart and Beethoven’s period. Then as an encore, the briefest of Schubert waltzes, bringing us full circle. A magical evening.