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András Schiff directs the OAE from a historic piano in performances that reconcile the chamber and symphonic qualities of Brahms’s concertos and limelight-hogging. How touching, for example, in the Adagio of the D minor Concerto (No 1) is the orchestra’s tender consoling of the piano’s quietly anguished confessions, as though each has become a character in a romantic novel. Here and throughout, Schiff sustains singing lines and broad phrasing much more naturally than Hardy Rittner with Werner Ehrhardt (also on period instruments, with an 1854 Érard). Schiff’s finale is also far less choppy, sacrificing little or nothing of the lyricism that was the bedrock of his modern-instrument recording with Solti. Indeed, the rather shallow sound of the piano in that recording in many ways creates a more awkward first impression, especially heard against the powerhouse backing of the Vienna Philharmonic.
The unity of purpose between Schiff and the OAE is as much to do with the compatibility of the instruments as with interpretative intent. The remarkably sumptuous natural horn, fully on display at the ceremonious opening of the B flat Concerto (No 2), is ideally complemented by the delectable stringiness (once you are acclimatised) of Schiff’s historic Blüthner. This is one of those instruments that truly has a personality of its own. The parallelrather than cross-strung bass favours transparency over resonance, while the ‘Blüthner Patent Action’ (distinct from the more resistant roller action that facilitates repetition) allows for a smoother, lighter touch. This, together with the distinctness of registers, gives the piano a chameleonlike blend with the orchestral timbres and colours, granting it a concertante rather than oppositional role, especially in the symphonic unfolding of the Second Concerto. Here Schiff and the OAE avoid the dichotomy between the twin peaks of the first two movements and the more modest outlines of the last two. The buoyant last movement is for once entirely to scale with the rest of the piece. It would be tempting to associate its flirtatious à l’hongroise moments with Schiff’s own roots, but imaginative affinity is above such clichés.
For all their declared faithfulness to the score, Schiff and his team are not slaves to it. Caprice, pliant rubatos and tasteful portamentos are plentiful, always in the service of nobility, elegance and chamberlike dialogue. Much has been said and written about Brahms’s own flexible attitude to rhythm and tempo. Still, eyebrows may rise at the three-stage broadening for the D major largamente in the second movement of the B flat Concerto (from 5’11”), and the subsequent
16 GRAMOPHONE 16 GRAMOPHONE SHORTLIST 2022