Emanuel Ax Plays Bach and Schoenberg with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert…and Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony

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Alan Gilbert and Emanuel Ax presenting the Schoenberg Piano Concerto.  Photo Chris Lee.

Alan Gilbert and Emanuel Ax presenting the Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Photo Chris Lee.

New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall
Friday, October 5, 2012, 8 pm
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

J. S. Bach – Keyboard Concerto in D minor
Schoenberg – Piano Concerto
Mozart – Symphony No. 36, “Linz”

I was so delighted by Emanuel Ax’s performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Ken-David Masur that I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear him play it again. They created a crystalline texture with their alert interactions, with all the incisiveness of the best chamber music playing. Not exactly what one associates with the New York Philharmonic, as excellent an orchestra as they have been, since Kurt Masur’s t years, but, in my experience, Alan Gilbert is strong with twentieth century Music, and it seemed like a promising combination to say the least…and it did work, although in a way quite different from the Tanglewood performance.

Emanuel Ax’s Bach is not something we hear too often, and I was keenly interested in this as well. With young pianists like David Fray taking up  Bach’s keyboard concerti with such lively perception, there seems to be no danger of them slipping from the standard concert repertoire into the specialized historical performance niche. Still, it is reassuring to hear a pianist of Mr. Ax’s generation playing one of them with a mainstream orchestra. His playing was impeccable. Mr. Ax’s fluency and precision supported the music with perfect taste and the lively responsiveness necessary to make Bach’s music sound relevant, even timeless, on modern instruments, as if it were written yesterday. The Philharmonic’s accompaniment was  lively, light in texture, and perhaps a little weak in body and attack.

The Schoenberg was prefaced by a less than inspiring chat between Mr Gilbert and Mr. Ax about the work. If the Concerto is really so accessible, why dwell on the rigors of serial composition just to say they don’t matter so much? If the technique doesn’t matter to the audience, why mention it at all? It only frightens the uninitiated. The argument seemed to create an obstacle rather than remove it. In any case, most people today know you don’t have to analyze a row to appreciate serial music.

On the other hand, Schoenberg wrote as much for his fellow composers, critics, as for the general public. The Piano Concerto is one of his most accessible works, and it is clear that he intended it that way.1 The first and second movements give the listener plenty of space to hear the thematic material and its development as it unfolds. Then Schoenberg’s writing becomes more dense in the third and fourth. It has the feeling of a Gradus ad Parnassum for the average audience member, who might hear the work in a subscription concert. Still, even the final movement spells every segment out in a perhaps deceptively clear way.

The Piano Concerto was a commission from Oscar Levant, who needs no introduction even today as a radio and movie personality, as well as a first-rate pianist and musician. Some may have equalled, but no one has surpassed his Gershwin performances. Levant studied composition with Schoenberg briefly in the early 1940s. Schoenberg invited him to work as his assistant — which he declined. Levant, it seems, expected a short piece from his master, but was surprised to receive a full piano concerto with a commensurate invoice. It’s a pity we don’t have a recording of Levant playing it, if he ever did. I imagine it would have been right on. In this performance, in which Gilbert wanted to make the concerto as user-friendly as possible, Levant and Gershwin were especially present. Schoenberg’s opening waltz-like theme, in this performance, struck me as a little bluesy as well, and very much New World. In the last movement as well some of the spirit of Gershwin’s Concerto in F comes out in the final bars. This never occurred to me until I heard this performance. At Tanglewood the interpretation seemed more European and like chamber music. Emanuel Ax was as flexible and sensitive as at Tanglewood, while Alan Gilbert smoothed the orchestral part out, but not in any way one might object to. Schoenberg’s concerto lends itself to strikingly different interpretations. I didn’t find Daniel Barenboim’s Romantic concerto treatment of a few years past entirely off the mark, but it was admittedly wilful.

Gilbert’s agenda in this concert seemed to be to present three works of different periods of similar shapes and durations. I haven’t raised the issue of Bach’s concerto, in which the composer would certainly have observed repeats with variations in performance. Emanuel Ax followed conventional modern instrument practice in omitting these. In any case, without ornamented repeats, Bach’s concerto has the same size, and a classical shape vaguely similar to Schoenberg’s. In order to fit Mozart into this rental tux, Gilbert had to omit all the repeats in the “Linz” Symphony. In any case all three works were in two or three minutes of each other.

While the “Haffner” is not without ambition, Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony, in C Major, a key to which he would return in his “Jupiter” Symphony soon after, is a work of grand scale, surpassing any of his earlier works in the genre. Mozart wrote repeats into his scores to allow not only for the improvisation already established, but for proportion. However a 21st century musician might handle this, repeats are necessary for proportion. By omitting them, Alan Gilbert sinned against Mozart in order to fit his own concept. The “Linz” is in fact a longer and grander work than Gilbert allowed, but it didn’t stop there.

I have never heard such a clueless Mozart performance as this. Gilbert seemed to have listened to a lot of recordings of the symphony and to have thrown them together without assimilating any of them, much less developing an interpretation of his own. Gilbert began with a relatively fast introductory Adagio, played Andante, if not Allegretto, seemingly just to show us that he knows the English, historically-informed style of a generation ago. He made the brass and woodwinds play loud in this spirit as well, bringing out the devils of the Fisher Hall acoustics. His gestures to the orchestra seemed to encompass every showy cliché on record to accomplish very little. At one point he seemed especially silly as he fussily compressed his fingers over a pretty phrase to no audible effect, while the bars leading up to it had been sloppily executed. Overall, there was not a great deal of correspondence between Gilbert’s caricatural directions and what the orchestra actually played. He jumped from affectation to affectation. There was no sign of a coherent personal view. One can only be grateful that the orchestra seemed to ignore most of his directions, or performance would have been even more mannered than it was. Gilbert seems to think that Mozart’s music is cute. The New York Philharmonic, except for its elegant woodwinds, played atrociously, recalling Bernstein’s off days or Mehta’s usual.


  1. Walter B. Bailey, “Listening to Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto,” in The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg. ed. Joseph Henry Auner and Jennifer Robin Shaw. (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 238-246.
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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