Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Emanuel Ax: Homage to Schubert (1)

Impromptu in G flat, D899/3
November 19, 1828
Grand Rondo in A, D951
Allegretto quasi Andantino (Schubert Dream) [World premiere]
Trout Variations
Quintet in A for piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, D667 (Trout)

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Emanuel Ax & Yoko Nozaki (piano/four hands)

Cho-Liang Lin (violin), Richard O’Neill (viola), Efe Baltacigil (cello) & Edgar Meyer (double bass)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 21 January, 2011
Venue: Starr Theater, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Emanuel Ax. ©Sony Music EntertainmentIn this Chamber Music Society concert, three Schubert works were interspersed with three works created by contemporary composers to pay “Homage to Schubert”, Emanuel Ax’s title for his three-concert series that will continue with two all-Schubert affairs. Ax will give a solo program in February and a recital with Simon Keenlyside in March.

Ax began this first concert with a crystalline performance of Schubert’s G flat Impromptu that served to epitomise the composer’s brilliance at creating beautiful melodies and subtle harmonies. Ax was then joined by Cho-Liang Lin, Richard O’Neill and Efe Baltacigil for the longest and most interesting of the three contemporary works, John Harbison’s November 19, 1828. It is, in the composer’s words, a “fantasy on the death of Schubert”, which occurred on that date. Each section of the 1988 work has a programmatic title representing Schubert’s supposed passage from life to the after-life. In ‘Introduction: Schubert crosses into the next world’, Ax’s piano was repeatedly interrupted by oddly-harmonised string chords representing the trumpets of death. ‘Suite: Schubert finds himself in a hall of mirrors’ is comprised of five short segments, each identified with a musical form in which Schubert composed, in which each phrase was repeated upside down. ‘Rondo: Schubert recalls a rondo fragment from 1816’ uses as a subject the work’s only direct quotation, the Allegretto in C (D346). The most arresting part of Harbison’s piece is its final section, ‘Fugue: Schubert continues the fugue subject (S-C-H-U-B-E-R-T) that Sechter assigned him’. This idea was drawn from an incident in which Schubert consulted the music-theorist Simon Sechter regarding a specific compositional problem and was assigned the task of composing a fugue on his own name, but died only a week later, leaving the task undone. Harbison’s fugue begins in the piano, reminiscent of Bach as Schubert’s fulfilment of Sechter’s assignment might have been, but as the strings entered, one after another, the harmonies became increasingly dissonant, the pace slower, and the dynamics softer, ultimately fading quietly away.

Following the Harbison, Yoko Nozaki sat at Ax’s right for two related works for piano/four hands – Schubert’s Grand Rondo and, for its premiere, Steven Stucky’s Allegretto quasi Andantino (Schubert Dream), which takes its title from the tempo-marking of the Grand Rondo and is based on thematic material from that Schubert work. In both pieces, Nozaki’s playing in the upper registers was expressive and bright, with Ax sometimes providing harmonic underpinnings but at other times carrying the melody beneath Nozaki’s ornamented figurations. Although primarily an orchestral composer, Stucky proved quite adept at exploiting the resources of a piano and two players, creating interesting combinations and contrasts along the way. The music effectively merged Stucky’s own distinctive voice with rather dark Schubertian influences, winding-down at the end almost like a clock striking the midnight hour. Stucky was present.

After the interval came a performance of Edgar Meyer’s Trout Variations, composed for a Chamber Music Society telecast in 1996 in which (as on this occasion) it preceded a performance of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, with Meyer playing the double bass in both pieces. Meyer’s work opens with an improvisational and somewhat disjointed and jazzy double bass exposition of the ‘Trout’ theme to a syncopated piano accompaniment. In the ensuing variations, Schubert’s tune appears in violin figures, very Schubertian piano arpeggios, and a plaintive cello line, with some odd accents and rhythms adding interest. The double bass returns in epilogue, sounding much as in its first appearance, but as the other instruments joined it, the final result sounded like American country music rather than a Viennese classic.

In Schubert’s ‘Trout’, Ax’s brilliant playing was the centrepiece of the performance, but all five musicians played marvellously throughout. The work’s five-movement structure serves to frame, and thus highlight, the even-numbered movements. The rapturously lyrical second-movement Andante was beautifully played, with O’Neill’s viola solos and Ax’s gentle phrasing standing out particularly. The Andantino fourth-movement began with the strings straightforwardly stating Schubert’s song “Die Forelle”, from which the Quintet’s sobriquet is drawn. Schubert’s inventive Variations then gives the theme in multiple guises in moods that varied from cheerful to dark and even stormy. Ax’s piano trills, runs and arpeggios and Lin’s curlicued violin figures provided much sparkle, O’Neill’s viola and Baltacigil’s cello sang out in rich tones in their solo passages. From its unexpectedly long-held opening note onward, the energetic and propulsive finale kept listeners a bit off-balance – especially when its false ending lured a few early applauders into its trap. When the real ending came, the musicians’ sweeping gestures signalled clearly that it was time for applause.

  • Programme played again on 23 January

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