Don’t let the elegant tails and cufflinks, the measured gait and the courtly bows, fool you. Yes, outwardly the pianist András Schiff appears to be the quintessence of Central European charm and gentility. Onstage he carries himself with the air of a Viennese aristocrat who has wandered out of another century. It is the look of a classical musician as ordered up by central casting.
But once Schiff sits down at the piano, all thoughts of image instantly vanish. He is one of the most penetratingly serious masters of the keyboard before the public today. Full stop. The high purpose of his music-making instantly focuses the mind. Decorousness is not the point. Why, you wonder sheepishly, were you even thinking about how he looks? We are here for an event in sound.
Schiff made a rare appearance in Symphony Hall on Thursday night to conduct and perform as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. What will linger in my mind is the extraordinary depth and vibrancy of his Bach, as most purely distilled in his solo encore from Bach’s Italian Concerto. In Schiff’s hands the music leapt off the stage with a seemingly impossible combination of rigor and fantasy. But the moments of lyric freedom in fact found meaning precisely because they were wedded to a profound structural grasp of the music. Schiff’s insights have been patiently accumulated over the course of a lifetime, excavated from the music’s depths. Here was Bach’s own exuberance, as if illuminated from within.
The night had begun with Bach’s F minor keyboard concerto (BWV 1056). With a modest complement of BSO strings fanned out around the piano, the brisk outer movements were pointed and lively, if not always impeccably tight from an ensemble perspective. The Largo sang out with a touching simplicity.
Following the Bach came a superbly weighted, brilliantly imagined performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. By anchoring basslines with the unfailing articulateness of his left hand, Schiff conferred on the music an extra sense of spaciousness and dimensionality. He was even attuned to moments of dry wit in the sprawling cadenza. Someone in my row stifled a laugh. I took it as the highest compliment.
For the second half of Thursday’s program, the Bösendorfer was rolled away and Schiff stepped onto the podium to lead a warmly embracing account of Brahms’s “Haydn” Variations and a sparklingly atmospheric reading of Bartók’s “Dance Suite.” Some prominent soloists later in their careers pick up the baton as a function of ambition, a drive for a brighter spotlight. But as a conductor Schiff affects no airs; his gestural vocabulary feels of a piece with his pianism. Both originate in an underlying musicality that exists somewhere prior to its expression through any particular instrument.
The “Dance Suite” with which Schiff closed the program was Bartók’s celebratory tribute to Hungary itself, written for the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda and Pest in 1923. Bartók studied deeply his native country’s folk music, and the “Dance Suite” is full of his own creativity as filtered through a kaleidoscope of folk styles. The music’s polyglot effervescence seems to bubble up from every corner of the orchestra. Beyond its manifest entertainment value, this music in its day may have also spoken with a political edge. The BSO’s Robert Kirzinger rightly describes the work’s sweeping compendium of folk styles as “a defiant refutation of the increasing call for ethnic purity in Central European in the 1920s.”
That same call, it must be said, is resounding again in today’s Hungary. It was hard not to wonder whether, for Schiff, programming this Bartók may also have been a subtly political act. Born in Hungary as the child of two Holocaust survivors, Schiff firmly rejects the dangerous cliché of music as a realm apart from politics. He has been an outspoken and principled critic of his homeland’s rightward tilt, the nationalistic fervor of prime minister Viktor Orban, and the cover it has given for intolerance and hate in Hungarian society to move alarmingly into the open. These days, Schiff lives in a self-imposed exile, refusing to return to Hungary even for performances. In another context, Thomas Mann, also in exile, famously declared: “Where I am, there is Germany.” For those few minutes onstage, there too was Schiff’s Hungary, Bartók’s Hungary — no less momentarily vivid for being countries of the mind.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
András Schiff, soloist and conductor
At Symphony Hall, Oct. 17. Repeats Oct. 18 and 19. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org