Emanuel Ax plays Schubert, Mostly Late, at Tully Scope

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Emanuel Ax and Franz Schubert

Emanuel Ax and Franz Schubert

Emanuel Ax plays Schubert
Tully Scope Festival
Alice Tully Hall, Saturday, February 26, at 7:30 pm

All-Schubert program
Four Impromptus, D.935
Sonata in A major, D.664
Sonata in B-flat major, D.960

The first evening of Tully Scope devoted to the classical music of the past was no less adventurous than the first two concerts, which revolved around the work of Morton Feldman, who was one of the great musical adventurers of his generation. Emanuel Ax, a fastidious piano virtuoso who combines impeccable taste and restraint with a deep respect for the classics, is fairly new to late Schubert, as I understand. The late piano sonatas in particular, works of grand scope, rich harmony, and deep feeling, offer little in the way of purely pianistic attractions to show off Mr. Ax’s fluent technique. I almost feared that his mastery of the keyboard might even get in the way of Schubert’s music. These moving performances, on the contrary, went beyond mere elegance and delved deeply into the heart of Schubert’s writing. Emanuel Ax did indeed approach the music as a pianist, but, as always for him, the music came first, and that led him in new directions, which he navigated in a way entirely his own.

The Steinway concert grand sounded entirely natural and intimate in the Tully acoustic, and the hall is large enough to allow it to project its full range and volume. I don’t believe I’ve heard a more felicitous environment for such an instrument. After hearing this, it will be hard to go back to the larger halls for piano recitals.

All of this music was written for performance in a domestic environment. We must imagine a fortepiano, which, although by no means a delicate instrument, lacked the enormous volume of a modern piano, which gives the great last sonatas, of which the B Flat is one, a symphonic quality. The sound was also more variegated across the registers. While the impromptus and the earlier Sonata in A fit comfortably in the spirit of the intimate gatherings of Schubert, his friends, and his patrons, we need no modern piano to realize that the spiritual scope of the B Flat reaches far beyond that.

Even the impromptus exceed the limits of salon music. Their unusual harmonic twists create inner moods far beyond the limits of convention. In this way they suborn the quite straightforward forms of the individual impromptus: rondo, minuet, variations, rondo. Ax gave himself over to these aberrant events and followed them intently, revealing all the surprise and beauty of Schubert’s harmonies along the way. This led to an almost episodic approach to Schubert’s writing that offset the simple formal structure of the pieces in a most stimulating way. Ax seemed to take each new episode at face value, allowing it to lead him whither it might go, without trying to make it sound logical within overall scheme. Schubert often leads phrases out of his splendid long melodies, repeats them, and then, after having isolated the fragments in this way, takes them through a series of harmonic transformations. Often, players try to blur the repetitions by floating the phrases in the extended melodic line. Ax’s seemingly simple method makes Schubert’s harmonic invention all the more vivid. The Impromptu No. 1 is a perfect illustration of all this. Schubert’s originality and powers of invention in it are astonishing, and Ax revealed it all…and his way with the final cadence was miraculous in its startling freshness.

In the wistful opening of the A Major Sonata Ax adopted a leisurely tempo that allowed him to highlight striking details along the way with only subtle rubato. And, for that matter, Ax’s way of pointing out details is characteristically subtle. He always maintains the integrity of the texture as a whole, avoiding the obtrusion of individual lines, accents or chords. Yet, when he wants something to shine through, it will. In Ax’s view, the serene poise of the first movement theme is quite fragile, lapsing again and again into melancholy and other shaded inner states of mind. This proceeds naturally into the pensive slow movement, in which Ax’s slow tempo occasionally slipped off into a dreamy stasis or deep gravity. The final movement was again deliberate in tempo and focused on each passing episode, as I have described in reference to the First Impromptu. This movement, more often than not, is played with an exuberant forward drive that bursts out after the darker preceding movements, but here Ax was intent on showing the psychological variety of the music, as if it were as unstable as its predecessors. Sound, figurations, and ornaments were all exquisite. I can’t remember ever hearing the little A Major more beautifully or sensitively played — not that it’s really little in any way, especially in Mr. Ax’s hands, even if he does not observe the repeats.

Emanuel Ax addressed the great B Flat Sonata with the same set of sensibilities and strategies he had adopted with such glowing results in the smaller pieces of the first half of the concert. He approached the work entirely from his own, pianistic point of view, ignoring any temptation to follow the quasi-symphonic treatment some pianists have adopted. The opening melody, one of Schubert’s most and expansive and beautiful, was very broad, arching over the rocking patterns, which Ax  had blent into a rich flow of harmonies. The pleasure afforded by this mass of sound, as clearly articulated as Ax thought it needed, was sensuous, but not meretricious in any way. By now I was not only accustomed to Ax’s approach, I was won over by it, so that I could follow his journey from episode to episode with fascination and delight at his insights. Later on, perhaps early in the recapitulation of the first movement, I began to realize that Ax was sacrificing something in penetrating so much into the moment in this vast sonata. One of the strengths of Schubert’s late sonatas is monumental structure on which they are built. One of Alfred Brendel’s great achievements was to bring Schubert’s harmonic imagination into balance with this structure. He saw Schubert as an architect as well as a poet. Ax is more interested in the passing landscape. No problems arise in a shorter work like the A Major Sonata he had just played, but in the B Flat I had the feeling that we were losing sight of something — not of being lost, but of wandering through a familiar but enormous series of rooms and open courtyards, all partly in the light and partly in deep shade, so that one couldn’t see all of them…something more like a place one might dream about than actually visit. The slow movement, as grave and occasionally menacing as it is,  seemed like a place where one might bravely lose oneself to gain wisdom. In the scherzo Ax’s fine sense of when to blend and when to articulate sharply was especially satisfying. The final movement never led us fully into the light until the very end, as it should, and was all the richer an experience for its lack of symphonic drive rushing on to the end. As in the rondo of the A Major, Ax chose to settle into each new development as it came. The powerful octaves, which seem to energize the music while blocking its impetus forward, were right in place. Emanuel Ax played a revelatory and profound performance, and my observation about structure is not meant as a criticism of anything inherent in his concept of the piece or a tangible flaw. Above all, as he continues to play the sonata over the years — and I hope he will do so, and add the other late sonatas to it — we can look forward to further revelations in this sublime composition.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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