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Pianissimo

AndrAs Schiff began his recent Philharmonic stint with Bach‘s D-minor Concerto, seated at the keyboard of a 9-foot concert grand piano with the lid removed, conducting a properly small contingent of string players. I’ve been around long enough to remember when Bach on the concert grand was seen as an unpardonable anachronism. That it is no longer the case stands as testimony to the sublime intelligence of today‘s generation of Bach performers -- Schiff and Murray Perahia above all -- and, of course, to their immediate ancestor, Glenn Gould. It also stands as further proof of the constantly growing awareness that the overwhelming strengths in Bach’s music transcend their time and speak eloquently into today‘s ears.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I‘ve heard this particular concerto, in its various metamorphoses. It exists in the familiar version for harpsichord, in a speculative reconstruction to bolster the theory that it was originally a work for violin, and -- most amazing -- in Bach’s own recycling of the first two movements as part of his Cantata No. 146 (”Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal“), where the already-complex slow movement, in a broader orchestration including organ solo, serves as accompaniment to an added-on four-part chorus. It‘s an extraordinary work in any form, an ongoing dialogue between soloist and orchestra, starting out in each of the three movements with separate and distinctive melodic material and eventually arriving at a convincing compromise. This is the same kind of wordless drama that you find in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto; Bach, some 80 years before, works the trick not once but three times. Hearing the work with piano, in Schiff‘s nicely paced, eloquent, balanced performance, made us aware of this relationship, and by doing so added a further measure to our wonderment at the self-regenerative power of Bach’s music.

Bach on the piano goes far back in history. Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni rewrote many of the keyboard works to the taste of the romantic-minded pianist, with octave doublings to bring the sonorities up to a sexy roar. Even after Wanda Landowska‘s efforts to restore the ”authentic“ sound of the harpsichord -- which she accomplished on an oversize, overclangorous instrument and with a rubato that Chopin might have admired -- there were responsible, scholarly pianists, Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer notably, who honored the timelessness of Bach’s music by performing it on their chosen instrument.

Fischer‘s performance of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier, recorded in England in 1933-34, is now available as part of a large-scale and admirable reissue program, on Naxos and therefore dirt-cheap. A landmark in its time (yes, I was there) and obviously stemming from the noblest intentions, Fischer’s Bach recordings strike me today as anachronistic in a way similar to Landowska‘s. He is obviously aware that he is playing the ”wrong“ instrument, and seems reluctant to allow his piano to identify itself. This I hear as an objectivity that dulls the edge of some of the most powerful parts of this amazing compendium: the C-sharp minor Fugue in Book I, or the E-flat minor Prelude a few pages later. Now there is a Schiff recording of the WTC; as with his Bach performance here with the Philharmonic, it fulfills the music.

Schiff’s program included the Beethoven ”Emperor“ Concerto, also conducted from the keyboard facing into the orchestra. This was not as successful; it bore witness to Schiff as a great pianist in the process of metamorphosing into a conductor, but not there yet. Conducting the ”Emperor“ requires a lot more reaching out toward the orchestra than leaning into Bach‘s modest string ensemble, and some of Schiff’s gesticulations were slightly on the ludicrous side. His Teldec recording, with Bernard Haitink conducting, has a lot more to say about this grand score.

In between came Haydn‘s Symphony No. 95, with Schiff erect, standing on the podium with this splendid, quirky, surprise-filled music fully in hand. Why is this one symphony, from among the magnificent final 12, so seldom played? Does its being in a minor key -- the same key as the Mahler Second -- frighten small children (see below)? The tricks are plentiful, and they are vintage Haydn: the sudden, jagged silences in the first movement and again in the third; the bits of concerto here and there, especially the cello solos in the minuet. It’s all marvelous music, as Schiff seemed to agree.

That annual big bang known as Mehta‘s Mahler rattled the rafters in Mrs. Chandler’s Pavilion this past weekend, and a mostly rapturous crowd countered noise with noise at the end. The Mahler Second is one of music‘s great playgrounds: swings, merry-go-rounds, seesaws, a jungle gym and a lively zoo. Lenny showed us the way in; Zubi is the current groundskeeper.

You can, of course, put over the Mahler Second as serious music; Bruno Walter’s old recording does pretty well at that, and so do the performances under Haitink and Klaus Tennstedt, both currently out of print. But why bother when the LennyZubi approach, with Mahler‘s wide mood swings made wider, and the second movement’s whipped cream turned into a veritable slurp fest, can sweep a crowd to its feet? Ideally, the Second belongs outdoors; I‘ll never believe that Mahler, most prescient of composers, didn’t actually have the Hollywood Bowl in mind when he wrote the thing back in 1894. All that offstage brass and timpani in the last movement, which resounds so wondrously among the trees in Cahuenga Pass, sounded lost backstage in the Pavilion.

Seriously, Mehta‘s Mahler wasn’t all that bad this time around. He started off in an onslaught that could strike fear into small children -- and which did exactly that on Friday night, until the little screamer (seated, would you believe, in the front row) was forcibly removed after the third or fourth howl. Mehta whipped the second-movement cream to just the right consistency, with a nice control over sliding strings and burbling winds. Mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips got a fine, dark tone into her fourth-movement solo; Heidi Grant Murphy‘s brief soprano solos were truly radiant, and I could have sworn that I actually picked out a word or two in the Master Chorale’s final chorus. Maybe, however, it was simply the gods of no-brain music, assuring me it would soon be over.


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