There was electricity in the hall as András Schiff, seldom to be seen with a baton in his hand, ambled on to the podium, beaming with rather alarmingly intense bonhomie. Alert, and clearly spell-bound, the Philharmonia strings were poised and ready. And yet all this intensity was directed at the youthful experimentation of a 13-year old boy.
Admittedly, the 13-year-old in question – Felix Mendelssohn – was celebrating his 200th birthday that day and, by his teans, could boast considerable experience composing and conducting his own music. For the teenage Mendelssohn displayed a precocity of musical imagination and technical skill in composition which would make even Mozart appear a slow learner. The 10th String Symphony, though comprised only of a single sonata-form movement, with a magnificently paced slow introduction and a dynamite coda, is a beautifully sculpted thing, full of thoughtful detail, poise and drive.
Youth was also present in the form of the 18-year old violinist Serge Zimmermann, brought by Schiff to make his London debut in Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Armed with a beautiful, varied tone and blistering technique, Zimmerman will go far. On the night, however, perhaps it was excitement but he rushed consistently, pulling away from the orchestra and often upsetting his phrasing. Only in the cadenza, and occasionally in the slow movement, did Zimmerman’s evident brilliance marry with Mendelssohn’s intention.
Schiff himself performed the usually unremarkable 2nd piano concerto, rising from the keyboard to direct an orchestra so clearly well rehearsed that this was more for enjoyment than necessity. Indeed, conducting from memory throughout, Schiff’s meticulously prepared and deeply thoughtful musical vision brought out the orchestra, and composer, at their very best. The man himself meanwhile, after an inspired reading of the Italian Symphony and a well deserved ovation, bounded on and off the stage with all the sprightliness of his young protégé.