A tale of two composers: Emanuel Ax explores Beethoven and Schoenberg in a Seattle recital

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Schoenberg: Emanuel Ax (piano). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 4.10.2023. (ZC)

Emanuel Ax © Nick Klein

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13, ‘Pathétique’; Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.2; Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57, ‘Appassionata’
Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces, Op.11; Three Piano Pieces; Six Little Pieces, Op.19

In late 2020, I decided to listen to Beethoven’s 32 sonatas in chronological order. Consider it my take on one of those pandemic-era ‘deep dives’ – sourdough bread, birding – that we all took.

My love for Beethoven dates back to 1996, when a dear friend introduced me to classical music for the first time. In the years that followed, I listened on and off to individual sonatas but never in order, and my pandemic-era exploration showed them in a new light. Over the course of two weeks, and with the help of a dozen different pianists, I listened to them all. As a body of work, they are profound, humorous, elegant and, of course, transformatively inventive.

In a recent recital in Seattle, legendary pianist Emanuel Ax further enlarged my appreciation of Beethoven with help from an unexpected source: Arnold Schoenberg. In brief remarks to the audience, Ax shared two key thoughts on Schoenberg. First, that the composer’s music is no longer new, yet it still instills fear in listeners. And second, that Schoenberg is essentially at heart a Romantic composer.

Schoenberg’s piano music consists of only a handful of complete works, and Ax chose to play two of the best-known and one that is less familiar. In the first half of the recital, he sandwiched Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op.11, between two Beethoven sonatas. He kicked off the second half with Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces from 1894 – one of his earliest surviving works – and Six Little Pieces, before finishing the program with another Beethoven sonata. Three Piano Pieces was a young Schoenberg’s tribute to Brahms, with affecting melodies given an elegant presentation by Ax. The latter two Schoenberg compositions were harder to enjoy but just as well presented. Each concise movement shimmered, murmured and exploded with individualism. It is true that the audience had to look hard at times amidst disjointed atonality, but people likely found enjoyment if for no other reason than Ax seemed to care so deeply about them. And all present learned that Schoenberg is nothing to fear.

Hearing three Beethoven sonatas juxtaposed with Schoenberg’s music evinced Beethoven’s struggle against established tendencies that most of us forget. Beethoven is now the foundation for how most people think about classical music. His symphonies, quartets and, especially, his piano sonatas no longer seem that revolutionary – and instead showcase many of Beethoven’s most popular melodies. Yet when cast alongside Schoenberg, Beethoven’s disruptive spirit is plainly visible.

Even Beethoven’s Op.2, No.2, an early sonata that Ax chose to close the first half, is gentile but far beyond what people would have heard from Mozart and Haydn. Throughout its four movements, Ax provided a masterclass in how to convey contrasting moods and play with precise articulation, while lavishing care on Beethoven’s colors, energy and humor. It is a sonata that demands as much variety from the pianist as Schoenberg does – while also pointing the way to the Second Viennese School of composers. The ‘Pathétique’ and ‘Appassionata’ sonatas, which opened and closed the recital – were the other two big works on the program. Each one pushes Beethoven further away from the Classical-era style, and every note serves Beethoven’s expressive purpose, just as Schoenberg’s abandoned tonality did. Ax’s performance was convincing even as he favored a less tempestuous, more probing approach.

Through Ax’s masterful interpretation, Schoenberg’s atonal landscapes revealed their hidden Romantic heart, while Beethoven’s sonatas, especially the Op.2, No.2, showcased the composer’s revolutionary spirit. As the music lifted from Ax’s Steinway, it became clear that Beethoven’s innovations, often taken for granted today, were once as daring as Schoenberg’s atonality. Ax’s profound commitment to these works revealed the beauty and significance of both composers’ legacies.

Zach Carstensen

3 thoughts on “A tale of two composers: Emanuel Ax explores Beethoven and Schoenberg in a Seattle recital”

  1. Nice review but what did he play for his encore. I know it was Schubert but what was the name of the piece.

    • Thank you ! Never heard of that piece. Sure sounded like Schubert to me. The whole concert was so beautiful!


Leave a Comment