Guest article by Wendy Skeen
A friend of mine attended András Schiff’s two concerts with the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment earlier this week in which he performed and directed Brahms’ two piano concertos. Here she shares her thoughts on the concerts – less a review, more a report informed by Wendy’s own experiences as a pianist, piano teacher and performance coach.
These two concerts were unusual in three key respects…
First, Sir András Schiff was both conductor and pianist. It’s not unusual these days to find concerts where the pianist directs the orchestra from the piano, but it’s rare to see that with Romantic repertoire such as these Brahms piano concertos. You might wonder whether it’s possible for a pianist to successfully direct an orchestra whilst also playing such fiendishly difficult repertoire. Well… it is possible… but it takes a pianist with colossal technique, musicianship and presence of mind (Schiff) and an orchestra comprising musicians of such high calibre and bravery (the OAE).
Secondly, these concerts involved much smaller orchestral forces than we’re used to hearing in Romantic repertoire. In a modern symphony orchestra, aside from the regular complement of wind and brass, there’s usually 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 double basses. For these two concerts the string department had just 10 first violins, 9 seconds, 6 violas, 7 cellos and 4 double basses. One might have thought this would detract from the overall effect yet it engendered a much more intimate, personal and transparent ambience, even within such a large concert space. This allowed us to hear so much more in the music than we’re used to hearing. In fact, at the start of Monday night’s concert, Schiff gave a short speech where he told us that “we think we know this music, but we don’t know it well enough!” I think that everyone who was there knows exactly what he meant by that!
Thirdly, the use of period instruments, the most notable of which being the Blüthner grand piano which Schiff had selected for these ‘historically accurate’ performances. This instrument, which was built in Leipzig around 1867 and restored in 2013 by Edwin Beunk, had been transported from Berlin especially for these concerts. In a short introduction before Tuesday night’s concert, Schiff explained that the instrument was contemporary with when Brahms’ piano concertos were being written and performed. He also explained that it was straight-strung rather than having the bass strings running diagonally in the middle and upper register strings, as with a modern grand piano. As such, it offers pianist and listener “distinct registral differences”, rather like a choir, from bass, tenor and alto through to soprano. In the hands of a master like Schiff, this resulted in a beautifully broad palette of tonal shades and colours, allowing many more distinct lines to peak through the texture as a result of Schiff’s masterful voicing and phrasing. It felt like the musical equivalent of seeing a work of art after it’s been restored… the craftsman’s work revealing the beauty that lies beneath hundreds of years of time and history!
This is not to knock the modern-day concert Steinway. It’s just an entirely different experience hearing music played on period instruments. I confess it did take my ears a few minutes on Monday night to adjust and attune to that different kind of sound and balance. But oh my goodness… what a joy to just let go of past experiences of these pieces and allow the ears to open up to a different, equally valid approach.
Wendy Skeen is an enthusiastic amateur pianist. She is also an experienced piano teacher, performance coach, workshop facilitator and fully qualified Cognitive Hypnotherapist with a particular interest in the topic of performance anxiety. She studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and holds a diploma in Cognitive Hypnotherapy and Master Practitioner in NLP qualification from the Quest Institute. She also holds a CIPD Certificate in Training Practice and TAP Certificate in Learning Management. During the early part of her career Wendy worked in arts administration. After that she spent a short while working in sports management and PR. She then spent over twenty years working in adult education in a variety of learning & development and coaching roles before setting up her own piano teaching studio and hypnotherapy practice. Wendy regularly participates in performance workshops, performs in meet-up groups and accompanies instrumentalists and singers whenever she can. She also develops and performs music for her village’s theatre club productions. She is particularly interested in the topic of performance anxiety, especially as it applies to musicians, actors and athletes as well as business people who have to ‘perform’ (e.g. when giving presentations). Her focus is on helping people to find practical strategies that will work for them based on a tailored approach that takes account of each person’s specific ‘way of doing their performance anxiety’. Her one-day and weekend ‘Panic to Poise’ workshops are particularly popular with instrumentalists and singers.