Passions Most Noble

Bravely, Uphill
Alone on a concert stage or facing an orchestra, András Schiff is a comforting presence. He puts on no airs, nor does his music-making. Something about his quiet, undemonstrative manner tells us that we, and his chosen music, are in trustworthy hands. This was so last season at Disney, in his intelligent solo performance of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. It was so again a week ago, when he joined the Philharmonic as both soloist and conductor in a curious program that contained nothing truly great, gathered in quite a lot from music’s lower shelves in fact, and still ended up enjoyable — at times even enchanting beyond expectations. This happened, I think, because of the sense that Schiff always gives off — in concerts I have attended, on recordings I treasure, and also on some videos that have come my way — that he believes, profoundly and unalterably, in what he is doing. Without naming names, I have the feeling, and so do you, that there are only a few musicians on this planet about whom that can so easily be said.

Schiff began his program with one of the 12 Symphonies for String Orchestra that the very young Felix Mendelssohn composed as muscle-stretching exercises. Some of these juvenile pieces, in fact, turned out to be quite handsome, grown-up compositions, and there are recordings to bear this out. Schiff conducted one of the shorter of these works, No. 10 in B minor, a slow preamble leading to a dark, beautifully formed allegro — a real discovery and, as it happened, by some distance the best music on the program. Then came music for piano and orchestra by Robert Schumann, not the Concerto (which I’m sure Schiff plays marvelously) but an unfamiliar one-movement piece, the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato. It begins like Schumann at his most romantic: rippling piano arpeggios and a moonstruck horn solo; then it turns dramatic. It struggles ardently, but also seems at times to self-strangle on its own gesticulations — as if to prove to us why it doesn’t get performed very often. Still, it was worth the hearing this once. Then, to clear the air, there came the better-known D-major Piano Concerto of Haydn, an agreeable piece that lives on its composer’s name without having anything much to say on its own.

More Schumann ended the concert — the “Spring” Symphony, amiable, sometimes downright jovial (with even a triangle added to the percussion contingent, to underscore the jollity), but with its prettiest moments hopelessly thickened by Schumann’s orchestral ineptitude and, thus, beyond repair. Of Schumann’s four symphonies, I find this the one with the most attractive ideas and the clumsiest manner of setting them forth: melodic lines ruined by excessive doubling, solo winds reduced to squalls. It makes you (or me, anyhow) want to get down there and rescore the piece for toy instruments, or perhaps kazoo and harpsichord. Under Schiff’s fond leadership, the music huffed and burbled nobly and bravely along its uphill path. All that love, and the cause was lost nonetheless. It always is.

True Brits
The sound of kazoo did not figure on last week’s superb program at Disney by Andrew Manze and his English Concert, but harpsichord surely did — along with theorbo and other baroque strings. Manze, who has taken over from Trevor Pinnock as head of the “Concert” (as in “Consort,” and kindly spare me explaining these fine points of archaic nomenclature), stands for a new and free spirit in early-music performance, dashing and at times delightfully unruly. A splendid pile of discs on Harmonia Mundi bears witness to his good works. Heinrich Biber, violin virtuoso and composer from the generation before J.S. Bach, is the new Baroque aficionados’ hero. This concert began with five extensive Biber movements, wildly virtuosic, harmonically all over the place. It went on to music by the better-known Biber contemporary Johann Pachelbel — not the much-overused Canon but a ravishing Suite in minor keys. (Trivia note: I’ll bet you didn’t know, and cannot be made to care, that Johann had a son, Charles Pachelbel, who gave concerts in New York coffeehouses in the 1730s and died in South Carolina.)

The result of all this passionate musical experimentation from the pre-Bach decades, which also included a fascinating Purcell Fantasia with harmonies off the walls, floor and ceiling, was to make the evening’s later, more familiar music — most of all a Vivaldi cello sonata, even though elegantly performed by Alison McGillivray — sound square and predictable. If Andrew Manze and his explorations have finally brought the Vivaldi fetish to its well-earned sabbatical, our gratitude will have been justly earned. At the end there was more familiar music but unfamiliarly transformed: Bach’s B-minor Suite “deconstructed” to a putative early version, with the solo line taken by violin instead of the later flute. Since the violinist was Manze himself, and his cavorting in the final Badinerie was of a level of infectiousness to make anyone want to dance along, no blame need be reckoned or ascribed.

At Royce Hall on Sunday another welcome visitor, Britain’s Harry Bicket, fondly remembered here for his leadership of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with the L.A. Opera, took over the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and succeeded, with less than a week’s rehearsal, in transforming that excellent ensemble of players on contemporary instruments into something you could easily take for a gathering of early-music specialists. This was done, as first violinist Margaret Batjer explained in the pre-concert talk, simply by guiding the players to rethink matters of pressure on the bow, and to phrase groups of consecutive notes in a sexier-than-usual manner. The result, in a program of 18th-century music of no particular expressive depth but enormous charm — Mozart, C.P.E. Bach and Rameau — was ravishing. For some, the highlight was David Shostac’s show-stealing performance of the C.P.E. Bach D-minor Flute Concerto, a work of many notes but slender content. For me, the revelation was a work I’ve known all my life, Mozart’s little Serenata Notturna for strings and timpani, so beautifully phrased under Bicket’s loving baton that I could not shake the sense that the music was talking to me in person. That’s Mozart for you, or can be.


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