Piano to Flip Your Wig

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

There are certain pianists who all but define the interpretation of their chosen composers for a generation. One thinks of Artur Schnabel's Beethoven, Arthur Rubinstein's Chopin, Glenn Gould's Bach. Now, in the early 21st century (and with due respect to other superb players such as Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida), we find ourselves privileged to live in the era of Andras Schiff's Mozart.

What a glorious concert Schiff presented at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday afternoon! Accompanied by -- or, rather, collaborating with -- his own hand-picked orchestra, Cappella Andrea Barca, Schiff played two of Mozart's great concertos: No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, and No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595, and led the most famous of the later symphonies, No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550.

It was the best sort of collective playing: subtle, proportionate, beautifully blended (that rapt, limpid solo oboe!), simultaneously songful and dramatic. Schiff took unusually rapid tempos in the symphony (they were perhaps a little too brisk in the Menuetto) but fulfilled what seemed to be his intention -- to make us reexamine this thrice-familiar work and hear it anew, not as the comfortable succession of luscious melodies we have known since childhood, but as a bleak, radical and devastating tragic masterpiece. Only the Andante provided a respite; I was reminded of musical spheres floating through space, above and beyond worldly joys and sorrows.

Still, the great performance of the day was that of the Piano Concerto No. 9, composed when Mozart was barely 21. It is one of those pieces that seem to have come out of nowhere, like Mendelssohn's Octet (which was finished when its composer was only 17) -- a perfect creation that not only proclaims the arrival of a new and exhilarating genius on the scene but expands our understanding of its genre's possibilities. There had never before been a piano concerto so grand and lengthy and variegated and personal as this one, and it changed musical history.

Schiff played in a manner that would have been described as coolly classical half a century ago and as impulsively romantic in the 1980s (thus do standards of performance fluctuate). He was not afraid to employ all the qualities available from a modern grand piano, extended dynamic range and dewy sonorities, enhanced by the damper pedal. And yet he maintained an Apollonian clarity of line. It was an intense performance, nothing of Mozart the pretty, periwigged wunderkind here, but never a strained or fierce one.

The Piano Concerto No. 27, which closed the afternoon, was also exemplary: witty, propulsive and rather lighter than the other pieces on the program, as befits its calm, sunny mien. Those who have seen the film "Groundhog Day" will understand when I say that I wouldn't mind being fated to repeat this brilliant Saturday afternoon again and again, for which many thanks are due the Washington Performing Arts Society, which brought it to town.

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