The Hungarian conductor and pianist András Schiff came to town and he came with a suitcase full of beautiful melodies: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 and his Piano Concerto No. 20 flanking Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 9 “La Suisse” and his Piano Concerto No. 2. What a delightful experience! The concert at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg yesterday evening could have lasted until late into the night, and I would not have left. Schiff and his Cappella Andrea Barca hopped from bar to bar like happy frogs from lily pad to lily pad. Their joy to play was obvious, their devotion to the two composers total. And guess who else was there last night? One of the violas was played by Annette Isserlis, the elder sister of the British cellist Steven Isserlis. Ha!
I came across the name of András Schiff when ECM released in 2015 Schiff’s album “Geistervariationen” with some of Robert Schumann’s most beautiful piano works. A recording that I liked from the first moment on. It was clear that Schiff as a pianist would earn a permanent place on my iPod in the Romantic section. Now, to hear him play and conduct Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto – what a revelation! And then the encore, written by Schubert, to celebrate Schubert’s birthday!
From apprentice to master
Mendelssohn’s brilliant piano concerto I knew well, however his Symphony No. 9 for Strings, written in C major in 1823, was new to me. Shame on me, it is a wonderful piece! It has no opus number as most of the works going back to this time. In 1823, Mendelssohn was 14 years old, and he considered himself an apprentice, writing pieces not meant for publication. When he wrote this symphony, he was already well familiar with Mozart and had just started to become fascinated by Johann Sebastian Bach’s counterpoint.
Many years later, in 1837, Mendelssohn wrote the Piano Concerto No. 2 for the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival. By then, he had become conductor at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig’s prestigious concert hall. By then, he had met and inspired Robert Schumann. By then, he was spearheading excellence in German music. And this composition has conquered my heart right from the first notes on. So light and bright, so joyful, so translucent!
Mozart – a romantic composer?
If – besides Tchaikovsky – the Romantic composers of Germany and Austria seem to be something of an obsession of mine, Mozart is another composer of whom I hardly can get enough. The Symphony No. 34 (KV 338), written in August 1780 in Salzburg, I knew just as well as his piano concerto No. 20 in D minor (KV 466), written in February 1785 in Vienna. But hearing both performed live was like discovering them anew. Two brilliant pieces, extremely charming to the ear. I wished one would be allowed to dance at the Philharmonie! Had Mozart lived some fifty years later, he would have been a worthy member of the Romantic movement! The symphony falls into an interesting time, the time span between 1780 and 1782. It was the time when Mozart was torn between Salzburg and Vienna, torn between the career plans, his father Leopold had forged for him, and his own ideas about where he belonged to.
The Child Prodigy sees big
Since Mozart’s early age, his father had paved the way for a splendid career of the child prodigy. But the child prodigy had grown up. Mozart saw big, really big: the Imperial Court! Salzburg, ruled by Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, employer of both father and son, certainly was a cultural and religious center of gravity, but not good enough for Mozart. Quite an attitude… and very different from Felix Mendelssohn’s rather humble approach.
Much to the annoyance of Colloredo, Mozart was frequently absent from Salzburg and not fulfilling his professional obligations. In 1781, after a stormy meeting between Colloredo and Mozart, Mozart’s request for discharge was accepted. This led to a serious dissonance between father and son, but the Child Prodigy had become a Prodigal Son and went his own way. By 1785, Mozart was well established in Vienna. His father attended the first performance and was delighted by his son’s most recent composition. Mozart conducted the concert and performed the piano part. A few years earlier, he had understood how to succeed with his compositions in Vienna: “To be applauded, one has to write pieces so easy to grasp, that a coach driver can sing them.”
This post would not be complete if I would not give you a chance to share the pleasure I had at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 is available on a record by the Zürcher Kammerorchster under Howard Griffiths and his Piano Concerto No. 20 has been recorded by the Stern Orchestra under Jiri Tomacek with Christine Engle on the piano. I can recommend Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 9 “La Suisse” recorded by the English Chamber Orchestra under Leopold Hagen. His Piano Concerto No. 2 is available on a recording by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken under Günter Herbig with Ragna Schirmer on the piano.
© Charles Thibo