Only rarely does a concert of familiar repertoire, that could be enjoyable but rather run of the mill, catch you by surprise and make you hear the music in a new way. Last night, András Schiff and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment exceeded this, in performances that were truly revelatory (an overused phrase, but in this case entirely appropriate). In his brief entertaining words before the Schumann, he invited us to open our minds and listen as if it were the première – and indeed their performance was as fresh and uncluttered by tradition as if we were hearing it for the first time.

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

The all-Mendelssohn first half began with the Hebrides Overture. Schiff, conducting without a score, chose an even tempo, and bright trumpets, brittle timpani and light woodwind characterised the OAE sound, with strong string ensemble throughout. Yet they also demonstrated that a period instrument sound doesn’t have to mean dry and monochrome, adding considerable warmth from the cellos and bassoons for the second subject. This was an articulate reading, never allowing the drama to obscure the detail.

The north of the border theme continued with Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor, the “Scottish”. The first movement's chorale-like opening was beautifully judged, and razor-sharp precision at the end of the introduction led into the Allegro, which Schiff controlled tightly, holding the strings to pianissimo exactly as marked until allowing the crescendo to the full tutti. Then he played a rather startling trick, with a bold portamento to accent the harmony sliding down a semitone at the start of the development section. He made perfect sense of this by matching it with a slide up in the recapitulation, but it showed he has the ability to shock even when peeling back the layers of weightier interpretations.

As Mendelssohn requested, Schiff and the OAE performed all four movements with only the slightest pauses between. The Scherzo was brisk, with high energy levels reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s youthful Octet, and the fact that the woodwind could only just keep up added to the excitement. A touching reading of the Adagio followed, with the yearning rising sevenths of the melody tastefully expressive rather than indulgent. The martial second theme was given a darker, more funereal edge, and in going for an uncluttered approach, Schiff is nevertheless not afraid to emphasise detail, such as allowing the double basses to really dig in here.

The finale then burst onto the scene, and despite the dancing violins, this is actually quite violent music. Again with an eye for detail, Schiff accentuated the warring harmonies in the fugal section, and this time it was the violas’ turn to dig in, their suspended dissonances verging on aggressive. But then calm arrived, with the clarinets and bassoons over pianissimo, perfectly controlled strings. Schiff then introduced the final victory him with subtlety to begin with, before building to a triumphant conclusion.

After the interval, Schiff introduced Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor with a few words, showing the audience his facsimile of the manuscript, and highlighting the importance of returning to the source. He also introduced his “different” piano (a beautiful 1847 Streicher), and asked jokingly why pianos are always black, like coffins...

Then came the true revelation of the evening – a Schumann Piano Concerto that wasn’t beaten within an inch of its life, as it so often is, but one with delicacy, life and boundless energy. Often referred to as a warhorse of the repertoire, performances often feel heavy and thick. The pared back sound of the bright piano and lighter orchestral textures meant that so much detail often obscured was allowed to come to the fore. There were moments, particularly in the first movement that felt almost like chamber music. Orchestral ensemble was tight throughout, particularly in the conversational slow movement, and the members of the orchestra were constantly communicating, together with Schiff at the piano, adding to the sense of a chamber performance. Once the finale arrived, Schiff had great fun with the confusing two/three cross rhythms, producing smiles from OAE colleagues. Everyone was clearly having a great time, and this sense of joy communicated to the audience. That sense of newness that Schiff said he was aiming for was well and truly nailed.

As an encore, Schiff then held the hall entranced with an incredibly intimate and touching performance of Schumann’s final work, the ethereal Geistervariationen, WoO 24. Composed in 1874 at the time of his suicide attempt, before his admission to the mental asylum in which he died, this moving work is a perfect expression of the Romantic angst and despair, with which Schumann lived and ultimately died. Schiff’s deeply moving performance was a fitting end to this evening of Romantic classics stripped bare of nearly two centuries of weighty tradition.