Piano Sonata in A, D664
Der Müller und der Bach
Horch, horch! die Lerch
Années de pélerinage, première année: Suisse – Vallée d’Obermann
Piano Sonata in B-flat, D960
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 27 April, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
In this gently unfolding recital, Emanuel Ax offered deeply moving music, flowing naturally without affectation, opening with Schubert’s three-movement winsomely charming Sonata in A, credibly dated 1819, the year in which the twenty-two-year-old composer and his close friend, the singer-composer Johann Michael Vogl spent a carefree summer in Steyr, Upper Austria. The buoyant music seemingly captures the cheerful atmosphere of that sojourn.
Ax, playing at a gently flexed tempo, delivered an elegant and poised rendition, shaping the radiantly tuneful opusinto an enchanting blend of playful humor and country-dance rhythms.
Next came four of Liszt’s captivating transcriptions of Schubert Lieder. Ax played each one smoothly and with great sensitivity to detail, their lyrical themes brimming with warmth. A notably confident take on ‘Aufenthalt’ conjured up a raging cataract with deep bass sonorities and colorful, highly spirited passion, climaxing in a series of dense, repeated chords. In contrast, the mood of ‘Liebesbotschaft’ was calmer – though just as incessant – as the soft, sweet murmurings of the piano vividly depicted a young man asking a burbling brook to lull his sweetheart to sleep. In the more wide-ranging narrative of ‘Der Müller und der Bach’, another young lover, this one overcome with jealousy, decides to drown himself and begs the water to sing on. Ax’s interpretation was hauntingly beautiful. The final offering, ‘Horch, horch! Die Lerch’, was distinguished by alluringly light-fingered finesse, with the final chord just a glimmer of the fading sound of the lark.
Inspired by Étienne Pivert de Senancour’s 1804 novel, ‘Vallée d’Obermann’, from the first Years of Pilgrimage cycle, evokes the hazy mediations of a melancholy young man overcome by his emotions on a retreat to a remote Alpine valley. Ax’s performance – ranging from thunderous octave fusillades to tender, harp-like passages – was his most virtuosic of the evening. Even in the most bravura sections – like the lightning-fast final double octave spurt, leading up to a nearly symphonic climax – everything seemed to come to him effortlessly.
Ax’s memorable reading of the B-flat Sonata was impressive for its range and depth of emotional expression, as his artistry allowed Schubert’s music to speak for itself. The opening Molto moderato, taken very deliberately, remained measured as the movement progressed, conveying a strong sense of inevitability. The playing was its most eloquent in the achingly beautiful slow movement where Ax’s sensitive manner made even the most intricate passages sound direct. In the Scherzo, there was a wonderful sense of joie de vivre, and the intensity of the Finale was particularly impressive as it alternated between major and minor until its glorious ending.
As an encore, Ax offered an ardently voiced account of Liszt’s delicate arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Ständchen’.