BBC Proms reviews

Prom 37 review – renowned pianist András Schiff beguiles and dazzles in Schumann

12 August 2023

The Budapest Festival Orchestra returned to the Proms under its enigmatic music director Iván Fischer to deliver an outstanding evening of music making in a selection of judiciously chosen 19th century works.

Prom 37

The Budapest Festival Orchestra, Prom 37 (Photo: Mark Allan)

The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s appearances in the capital always attract sold-out houses, so it came as no surprise that its first appearance at the Proms since 2018 saw the Royal Albert Hall packed to the rafters. Another draw, of course, was the appearance of one of the world’s most distinguished pianists, András Schiff, who was on hand to perform Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Not one of the most innovative works in the repertoire, it has to be said, but if anyone was going to polish it anew, it would be a performer of Schiff’s eminent standing.

Alongside the Schumann, the programme contained two other works – the Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Scottish’. On paper, these three works didn’t appear likely to set Kensington Gore alight, but expectations were thankfully foxed. How? Because this scintillating group of performers, under the audacious baton of Iván Fischer, never fails to inject a sense of excitement into every piece it tackles.

Fischer has been tinkering with standard orchestral practices for many years now, and while in lesser hands such interventions can appear gimmicky, in his assured hands they’re often a revelation. From the hushed opening of the Freischütz Overture – minimal string vibrato, a thrilling crescendo, ominous timpani – it was clear that both conductor and players were going to tease every last drop of otherworldliness from Weber’s atmospheric soundworld. Having the four horn players arranged antiphonally, either side of the organ console, helped enhance this, and allowed for extra textural clarity. Their playing was beyond reproach, as was Ákos Ács’ – making the clarinet part sing with uncommon vivacity.

There are many ways to approach the solo part in Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Its dazzling arpeggios require a level of digital dexterity that only the best in the business can deliver, but in the wrong hands the piece can come over as a 30 minute exercise in showmanship – all bravura, and no substance. Schiff is not such a performer, and whilst his faultless technique was evident in every bar, he brought gravitas and a sense of humanity to the work – elements that often elude even some of the work’s most seasoned interpreters. 

“…if anyone was going to polish it anew, it would be a performer of Schiff’s eminent standing”

Prom 37

András Schiff & Iván Fischer (Photo: Mark Allan)

Of course, it helped that he had such a willing and able partner in Fischer, who supported his fellow countryman on a well-supported bed of luxurious orchestral sound, constantly attuned to the changing shifts in mood and colour. The opening bristled with energy and a forward sense of momentum that kept the players and the soloist on their toes, Schiff crowning the first movement with an exhilarating, yet perfectly poised cadenza.

The second movement, marked Andantino grazioso, found Schiff at his most beguiling, teasing out Schumann’s melodic lines and injecting a genuine feeling of pathos, while he injected the finale with a sense of energy and inevitability as it careered to its explosive conclusion. This was playing on an exalted level, and showed that a more measured and thoughtful approach reveals hidden depths in a work that other pianists fail to mine. There were two encores – the first took the Hall by surprise, as the orchestral players put down their instruments and sang, very well as it happens, the last of Brahms’ Vier Zigeunerlieder (Four Gypsy Songs), ‘Liebe Schwalbe, kleine Schwalbe’ accompanied lovingly by Schiff. He then went on to give a delicate account of Schumann’s The Happy Farmer, which concluded the enthralling first half.

There was one work on the programme after the interval, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Scottish’. What makes it ‘Scottish’ is very much up for debate as it endured a relatively lengthy gestation period following the composer’s trip to Scotland. Yes, there’s an element of the dark, brooding Scottish landscape in the work, although it doesn’t intrude or dominate, but this work neither matches the vivacity and local colour that permeate the German composer’s Fourth Symphony (Italian), nor the gravitas and ethereal nature of the Fifth (Reformation). In other words, the Third is a bit bland. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine a more persuasive performance than the conductor and orchestra gave on this occasion. 

Orchestral textures were perfectly balanced, and the pacing was faultless. All sections of the orchestra distinguished themselves, but the delicacy and clarity of the woodwind section particularly stood out – once again Ákos Ács’ clarinet playing was beyond reproach. Fischer had yet another surprise up his sleeve – each section of the orchestra rose to its feet, one at a time, during the coda. It added a sense of theatrical frisson that rightly brought the house down.

The audience wasn’t going to leave without an encore, so we were treated to a thrilling, all guns blazing account of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance (Op 72, No.1) which set the seal on a glorious evening of music making from one of Europe’s most distinguished orchestras.

• Prom 37 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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