Toscanini, Casals, Barbirolli, Rostropovich: all cellists who became conductors, two of them great ones.
To that quartet we must now add Heinrich Schiff, an endearing little roly-poly of a man who charmed both the CBSO and the audience on Wednesday.
He is a conductor economical of gesture, who trusts his orchestral colleagues, and who only releases the left hand, which he normally keeps up his sleeve, for important moments. Sir Adrian Boult would certainly approve.
But he began the programme with the stiffest of challenges, playing Shostakovich’s busy First Cello Concerto and directing the orchestra with his back to them.
On this sort of occasion the concertmaster takes on a great deal of responsibility, but the regular CBSO leader, Laurence Jackson, was off-duty. His stand-in, Ruth Rogers, did a marvellous job, as did Mark Phillips, his rasping, eloquent horn a constant alter ego to the cellist’s activity.
Schiff gave us a reading of unflashy expressiveness, sustained and pungent, summoning an orchestral collaboration of driving precision. The central cadenza was a particularly moving highlight, Schiff responsive to the ruminative restraint of the composer’s thinking.
From the scarcely-disguised political irony of this Cold War piece we moved to the Third Reich satire of Weill’s Threepenny Opera Suite, Schiff’s throwaway directing perfectly capturing the sarcasm of this fractured score aching with suppressed warmth.
Finally came a symphony, Schumann’s Second, bits of which are well-known to Classic FM listeners.
This is a difficult piece to make work. Its central movements are more easily memorable than the selfconscious strugglings of the outer ones, but Schiff’s determined advocacy made the whole interpretation one of a piece, and the CBSO collaborated with enthusiasm.