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Prudery 6, Beethoven 0
on 15 March 2016
First and foremost, it’s a pleasure when the Generalissimo of the Five Star Martyrs’ Brigade (and registered Culture Vulture) John Kwok waddles into gun-range. Let’s critique his review first:
“Andras Schiff's splendid traversal of the Beethoven piano concerto cycle is definitely one worth owning. His performances are richly steeped in lyricism and poetic beauty (OK, the first of the brocades has made an appearance). They are also steeped (JK, what would John Updike say of your use of the same verb in successive sentences?) in the fiery dramatic tension that I've come to expect from the likes of Arrau and Kempff (not many people would associate the latter with these qualities but there you go). Of the current crop of distinguished pianists, Schiff is the only one (JK – really???) who comes close to scaling the emotional heights shown by Arrau and Kempff (alas, the dynamic duo are wheeled out again in a sea of generalisations). His transcendant (sic) performances are as good as those of Kovacevich and Perahia too (JK is name-dropping at this point). Unlike Perahia, Schiff is better at stressing the lyrical qualities of the piano, though it lacks some of the emotional intensity and drama that I've heard with Perahia's Sony cycle with Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (General Generalisation condemns this murky sentence and so do I – and JK just said before that Schiff delivers “fiery dramatic tension” so how does one harmonise these juxtapositions????). For example, Schiff's performances of the 4th and 5th piano concerti are among the most lyrical I have yet heard (this is the third time that JK has used the word ‘lyrical’ or variants thereof). Speaking of Haitink (here we go), his conducting of the Dresden Staatskapelle is exemplary, and is comparable to his excellent work with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (some would say this is not a good thing). However, due to Teldec's state of the art digital recording, the sound quality is substantially better (than what?). Most noteworthy are the fine performances of the woodwind and string sections (JK, why not throw in the brass as well for a full house?). If you are looking for one superb Beethoven piano concerto cycle (I’m not), then this has to be it. Otherwise, it belongs on the shelf (gathering dust?) with the exceptional cycles of Kempff, Arrau (either with Haitink or Davis conducting, though I give the nod to Davis), Kovacevich and Perahia.”
Having thrown water into the sea, let’s move on. First and foremost, my usual parameters apply here: I’ll not bother with the first two concertos. In their modesty, it could well be that Haitink and Schiff deliver the goods.
The first horror here is Schiff’s Appassionata – the so-called bonus. Much to my surprise, it has yet to receive the opprobrium that it deserves (as much as I relish Jurgen’s review). There comes a point where the word “bowdlerisation” runs out of puff: here is one instance. Being devoid of angst, fear and anything luciferous, this account could be likened to a minor character from Downton Abbey – say, Mister Smedley-Caruthers Esquire of the local council who’s not allowed to eat at the high table after he dropped a naughty word – like “fiddlesticks” - in earshot of the Vicar who’s rather shocked by his intemperance and lack of breeding. That’s my personification of this outing. Thin lipped, narrow of tone and scared of itself, this could be the wimpiest, most carbon-neutral Appassionata in history. To paraphrase the Penguin Guide, when Brendel (of all people) is kicking sand in one’s face in Opus 57, it’s time to take up tiddlywinks as a hobby and forego the concert hall.
That leaves the major concertos. To my ears, given the convergence of two “Low Flamers” (Haitink and Schiff), they’re a double Death Star job. Politeness and refinement have limited application in this domain: FFS, this is Beethoven. almoner of the Eroica! Here, they’re in floodtide. Rarely if ever has the Emperor been so drained of spontaneous heroism – again, its lack of mojo is primarily attributable to the primness of the soloist (who could almost be playing a concerto by Haydn); even so, as demonstrated by the famous passage in the first movement’s prelude (here at 3’37”ff) where Beethoven seeks to burn down the house, Haitink plods along in imitation of his buddy. Further along at 6’47” where Beethoven asks the soloist to conjure a solar flare, Schiff waves his long-johns in the air as a show of defiance. The slow movement is earthbound: the soloist summons nothing from the dust. Ever so predictably, the exuberance of the finale is tempered by Schiff’s reticence which the conductor worsens. If nothing else, listen to the first eighteen seconds – please! There’s nothing else like it in discography. It’s so wimpy and listless, one wonders if Schiff lost a game of Old Maid in his youth and the trauma of the event never left him. And yes, András: don't you think the Joker laughs at you?
I’m not a fervent fan of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto; nevertheless, it deserves something better than this glorified stroll across the pedestrian crossing. Yet again, Schiff walks when he should run and whispers what be shouted from roof-tops. In the first movement, his daintiness transmutes every statement into mere passagework; the nadir surely comes at 6’30”ff where, rather than reproaching the orchestra, Schiff makes another daisy-chain. Does this music have no resonance in the scheme of things? This is an Opus 58 for Mary’s little lamb, so meek and so mild.
As Lent is upon us, I took a bullet for the team by listening to the Third Piano Concerto, a work I normally avoid like the pox. It was folly on my part. Whatever its merits might be, surely it deserves something more than this “Deification of Vanilla Ice-cream” approach. With all the herculean presence of the proverbial church-mouse, Schiff scurries in at 3’24” of the first movement after wiping his ever-so-clean shoes at the door, straightening his tie and neatly combing his hair. It’s all very nice of him to do so but what does it have to do with Beethoven? Further along at 7’48” – 9’18”, lethargy almost grinds the music-making to a complete halt. How a stall was averted is a mystery. The remaining two movements are just as pedestrian.
Throughout so much of the music-making here, the Staatskapelle Dresden gives the impression of a Maserati that is being driven tepidly like a Corolla. The wastage is felonious, particularly when the recording is as good as it is.
Again, Gresham’s Law in Reverse should doom this endeavour to Limbo; here and now, however, the perpetuity of on-tap downloads will avert entombment. To say that it’s an also-ran is a misnomer as it implies that its constituents were once running hell-for-leather for the prize of prize.
Die not of heat-death!