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Review: András Schiff Wears Two Hats at the New York Philharmonic

Schiff approached Friday’s program more as he would one of his recitals, which these days are long but often rewarding, essayistic assemblages announced from the stage rather than advertised in advance. He contrasted concertos in D major and minor, and made explicit the connections between two Mozart works — arguments that were more persuasive from the keyboard than from his perch as conductor.

Leading from the piano is a throwback to Mozart’s time, and can be fascinating to witness. When Mitsuko Uchida does it, for example, she treats the orchestra as an extension of her instrument — a mode of expression somewhat perversely, but beautifully, in service of her interpretation. Onstage at Geffen Hall, Schiff had more the appearance of a fan beating along to a recording, gesturing with the music instead of truly guiding it.

Because of that, the purely orchestral sections of the program were the weakest. Schiff, as in his touch at a keyboard, relished the extremes of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony — the opening truly pianissimo, the forzando notes truly explosive. But without much else in the way of an overarching vision, the piece grew indistinct by the second movement, which, in taking its time, also lost its sense of shape and direction, an andante con moto without its moto. After intermission, the Overture from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” music that punishes any performance that falls short of precise, was more of the same: hellfire-frightening chords at the start, then an insistent emphasis on articulation, patient to the point of slackness, over broader phrasing.

It was nevertheless a gift to hear this repertoire — beloved, if overprogrammed — in the renovated Geffen Hall for the first time. So far, as the Philharmonic adjusts to its new home and the auditorium undergoes further tuning, smaller-scale works have benefited most from the more generous acoustics. The last time I came across Schubert’s “Unfinished” there, under Alan Gilbert’s baton in 2015, the low strings were virtually inaudible in the mood-setting, crucial opening bars; on Friday they rumbled, immediate and under the skin.

And the hall’s transparent sound rewarded the lean wit of Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in D, at the top of the program. Here, Schiff was more in his element: stately, with a kind of dry humor in the cadenzas, his touch often gentle but, when sharp, amplified by the bright sound of his Bösendorfer piano.

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