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Music Review

From the Bench, Schiff Inspires Philharmonic

November 18, 2000|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Conducting piano concertos by Bach and Beethoven from the keyboard Thursdaynight with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Andras Schiff proved himself a persuasive musician. He would have to be. After all, he made his name through a series of solo piano recordings of Bach's keyboard music in the early 1980s that seemed to fight all the careerist odds. Bach was out of fashion on the piano, period instruments having become all the rage.

Moreover, anyone recording Bach on the piano at that time automatically fell into the shadow of Glenn Gould, the quirkily original pianist who died in 1982. Schiff was neither quirky nor dogmatic. He played Bach simply and respectfully as straightforward piano music. Yet he drew in listeners with his singing tone, elegantly shaped phrases and exquisite contrapuntal detailing. Somehow, Schiff's Bach seemed to go beyond style and tell us very directly and beautifully what was in the composer's head.

Although Schiff's playing has taken on slightly more freedom as he has matured, he remains a pianist who tells us more about the composer than about his own personality. The remarkable feature about his appearance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday is that he also conveys those qualities to an orchestra as well.

Whether seated at the keyboard, with the piano turned to face a small string section in Bach's D-Minor Concerto or a fuller orchestra in Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, Schiff treated his role more like the leader of a chamber ensemble than a conductor. "Conducting" seemed almost the wrong word; it was a process of interacting. Schiff worried little about how he looked to the audience. He is not tall, and he often had to wave his hands awkwardly above his head to be seen over the keyboard. And ebulliently wave he did, shimmying on his bench. He appeared to be less cuing players or shaping the music than stirring the pot, egging everyone on.

The real communication was sonic, his tone--clear, strong and warm--encouraged the other musicians to produce something similar. It is, indeed, rare for an audience member to sense orchestra players so actively involved in the interpretation of music rather than simply carrying out the wishes of a conductor. But the level of response, particularly of the strings in the Bach concerto, was extraordinary.

Attempting to conduct Beethoven's grandest concerto from the keyboard, however, could seem almost self-defeating. The ensemble is too large, and the responsibilities to guide it through complex passages require a pianist with an extra arm and a split personality. Beethoven had, by this point in his development, come to view the concerto as a contest of wills between soloist and orchestra.

Schiff, who has only been conducting for two years, did not solve all those technical problems. He seemed, for instance, unable to communicate with the winds and timpani, who were barely in his line of sight, as effectively as with the strings in whose midst he sat. And, at times, he and the orchestra felt almost too much in accord.

Still, for every obstacle there was a compensation, especially when the rare accord between pianist and orchestra allowed for a fluidity impossible to otherwise achieve. One unforgettable example was the transition from an exquisitely played slow movement into the boisterous Finale. First hesitation, then a searching for the correct gear, and finally a gravity defying acceleration made it a breathtaking ride. And throughout, Schiff's own playing had a special glow that I think could only come from the sheer exhilaration of his direct contact with the orchestra.

In between the concertos, Schiff led Haydn's Symphony No. 95. His podium manner, like that of his conducting style seated at the piano bench, involves what appears to be a lot of artless waving of his fists about. But again, it resulted in highly committed playing. His way was not to exploit Haydn's wit, bite or color--that might require more conducting technique than the pianist can yet muster. But he satisfied his listeners by revealing the deeper, mellower side of Haydn, which sometimes gets neglected in the symphonies.

The solo piano encore of Schubert's Impromptu in G flat, demanded by a large audience that seemed just about as involved in the music as the orchestra, was spellbinding.

*

* Andras Schiff and the Los Angeles Philharmonic repeat the program Sunday, 2:30 p.m., $10-$70, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. (323) 850-2000.

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