Emanuel Ax plays Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Four Impromptus, D935
Piano Sonata in A, D664
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 20 March, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Emanuel Ax. ©Sony Music EntertainmentSchubert’s piano sonatas are rather thick on the ground this week at Wigmore Hall. Emanuel Ax set the bar very high with his programme of music from the last year of his life, with an earlier sonata (probably from 1819) in between.

Ax’s style is persuasive rather than coercive, fastidious but unfussy, his stage-manner agreeably self-effacing, but somehow in music as familiar as the second set of Impromptus, he raised its game with playing notable for its wit, spontaneity and just a touch subversive. He subjected the broad structure of the first piece to being questioned by passages of broad lyricism. In the second, Ax gave the minuet beat a volatility that justified the surprising urgency of the trio. The innocence of the Theme of the Variations in the third Impromptu morphed into gently garrulous charm and then into something broader and much more serious. It was a lovely performance, with the sort of playing that made the piano sing. Ax toyed with our expectations, but in the most tactful way, as though he was saying ‘yes, you can do that with the music, but have you considered this?’ and then demonstrates what he means by a flicker of rubato or a moment’s lingering on a phrase to add lilt and depth to the Schubert’s inherent lyricism. Ax showed an intuitive command of the music’s scale, of how subtle inflections of light and shade create the minute transformations that makes Schubert’s music ripple with energy.

It was the same with the ‘little’ A major Sonata, of lower emotional temperature than the later works, perhaps, but from Ax it was brimming with lyrical, song-like fervour, especially in the romance of the slow movement.

You might think sometimes that the great B flat Sonata suffers from over-exposure, certainly to the degree that pianists need to have something significant to bring to this extraordinary work. The printed score doesn’t suggest music bursting with technical difficulties, but it must be so hard to bring a lot of it off, especially the repeated-note figures. Ax’s playing was sublimely musical and a full realisation of the piece’s size and weight, which suggest symphonic possibilities without sounding remotely like a reduction of an orchestral score. His subtle assertiveness with the bass trills in the first movement (its exposition repeated) – which, like an uber-sonata form, provide a heightened sense of structure and deliver the music into the remotest regions – gave them an almost elemental force, and made you hear how the device is mirrored in the bass rumbles of the slow movement. In the latter, Ax achieved a tenderness and abandonment that you can hear leads directly to Mahler. It was a memorable performance of this most-distant music, a study of the most-muted pianistic colour and played with improvisatory grace.

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