The atmosphere at Mozart’s subscription concerts in Vienna in the 1780s must have been electric. Embarking on life as a freelance composer, Mozart was both organising the concerts and turning out piano concertos for himself to play. This is arguably the greatest series of concertos ever written, but pressure of work meant he often did not have time to write out all the notes in advance and a lot was left to the spur of the moment.
It is difficult to recreate those concerts today. The fortepiano sounds like the distant tinkling of a running tap in most modern halls and few pianists of the first rank have risked using one for Mozart’s concertos, as András Schiff did here, performing a pair of the most substantial concertos with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
In practical terms this was an unusually successful enterprise. Schiff’s instrument, a copy of an 1802 fortepiano by Paul McNulty, an instrument-maker based in the Czech Republic, made a clean, strong sound, even if the notes did die on the airwaves within seconds of being struck, and positioning it sideways on helped a lot (most pianist-conductors, wanting to see all the players, have their backs to the audience and take the piano lid off, with the result that the sound goes up into the roof).
In the early Piano Concerto in E flat, K.271, Schiff was buoyant and brisk. Although he did not capture the sense of music being made on the wing as spontaneously as Robert Levin, fortepiano specialist and a long-time collaborator with the OAE, Schiff did add decorations and cadenzas as he went, making the music sparkle with wit.
A bracing performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.98 was not as detailed in the orchestral playing as it might have been. But then Schiff brought his long years of experience playing Mozart to bear on one of the loftiest of all the subscription concertos, the C Minor, K.491. There was little embellishment this time, but Schiff showed how even a fortepiano can deliver variations of tone colour and attack that gave his intimate exchanges with the wind ensemble an air of Olympian purity. Close one’s eyes and for one evening the Queen Elizabeth Hall might just have been a salon of 18th-century elegance and beauty.