Emanuel Ax More Masterly Than Ever in Revelatory Recital

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Chopin, Samuel Adams: Emanuel Ax (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 19.4.2017. (BJ)

Schubert – Four Impromptus, D.935

Chopin – Impromptus in A flat major, Op.29; F sharp major, Op.36; G flat major, Op.51; C sharp minor, Op.66

Samuel Adams – Impromptu No.2: After Schubert

Chopin – Sonata in B minor, Op.58

The age of 67 suggests what is pretty well peak time for a pianist, and indeed Emanuel Ax at that age seems to be sounding more masterly than ever, without in the least losing his intellectual curiosity or his imaginative approach to program-making. Built around the genre of the impromptu, and concluding with the last of Chopin’s three piano sonatas, this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital shone a new and perhaps surprising light on conventional ideas about that composer, while finding room also for Samuel Adams’s look back on Schubert.

Throughout his career, Ax has commanded a range of tone that was especially refreshing in contrast to a certain metallic harshness of sound prevalent among American pianists when he first came on the scene. His pianissimo can convey a rich vein of poetry, and his fortissimo bespeaks enormous reserves of power, yet the one never loses presence and the other never degenerates into brutality. What was perhaps most immediately striking about his playing on this occasion was the way it combined incisiveness with a perfect textural balance to achieve a delightful sense of airy clarity.

It may seem perverse, in the face of the evening’s many passages of breathtaking virtuosity, to say that the movement retaining the most tenacious hold on my mind since the recital ended has been the second of the Schubert Impromptus. The idea that there can be only one absolutely correct performance for any given piece is purely chimerical – great music admits of a wide variety of equally convincing interpretations, and I have heard this A-flat-major piece played superbly any number of times by great pianists. But such was the quiet assurance Ax brought to this magical music, and so inevitable did his realization of it in tempo, phrasing, and expression seem, that I felt for once as if no other view could be possible.

The contrast between Schubert’s blend of classically poised serenity with momentary outbreaks of passion on the one hand with the more uniformly romantic intensity of Chopin’s Impromptus on the other was one of the insights Ax brought home to us. The power of Schubert to inspire later composers was suggested by the second of three Impromptus that Samuel Adams, a 31-year-old San Francisco native, conceived to be interpolated between the four movements of his forerunner’s D.935 set.

On occasion I have found myself remarking of a particularly cogent work or performance that “the music never sat down,” and I usually intend this as a compliment. In the present piece, however, which runs a little over ten minutes in performance, and in which Ax controlled long stretches of diminuendo with impeccable judgment, the sense that the music was constantly on the edge of attaining repose without ever quite getting there seemed eventually unsatisfying. Still, there are some genuinely compelling ideas, and I look forward to hearing more from the composer.

A program that had opened with one of Schubert’s most substantial non-sonata piano works ended with a true sonata by Chopin. There is an idea that has had some currency for years to the effect that Chopin was a master of small forms but uncomfortable with such large-scale genres as the sonata.

Well, agreeable listening though they made, his four Impromptus, composed over the span of a decade, were overshadowed to my ears by the grace and delicacy of the Schubert set that preceded them – but the B-minor Sonata (my favorite of the three, despite the quasi-legendary stature of the funeral march in No.2) emerged as a masterpiece of the first water. And what was especially notable about it under Ax’s hands was its diametric opposition to conventional views of Chopin as a sort of decorative miniaturist. Almost totally free from the flowing fioritura that often embellishes his melodies, this came across as music of uncompromising austerity, almost of asceticism. The range of a composer whose work can encompass both such unflinching strength and the perfumed elegance of the F-sharp-major Nocturne that Ax gave us as an encore cannot be confined within the limits of any one stylistic or expressive tendency.

Bernard Jacobson

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