Wigmore Hall Master Series – Emanuel Ax

Six Pieces, Op.19
Partita No 5 in G, BWV829
Two Petrarch Sonnets – Nos.104 & 123
Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto
Sonata in C minor, D958

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 10 February, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was a surprisingly pedestrian recital, almost as if the subdued atmosphere in the hall affected Emanuel Ax. Except in the most virtuoso passages of Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase, the volume rarely rose above mezzo-forte, and though Ax showed the discrimination and professionalism that has given him a long-established international reputation, the whole concert took place as if the piano was muted.

In many ways, the Schoenberg with which the recital began was the most successful. Ax delivered each with appropriate artfulness and delicacy. This is repertoire where care and precision pays dividends in the exposition of what is often more difficult than graceful. So while Ax’s interpretation was not as imaginative or compelling as – say – Pollini or Uchida, it did have admirable lucidity.

But to apply the same delicacy to Bach’s Partita was perhaps to miss a dimension of the music. Both the opening, prelude-like movement and the final ’Gigue’ were played with a lightness and poise reminiscent of Scarlatti; there was little attempt in the dance movements to vary the repeats or even to vary the mood from one number to the next. The whole was monochrome – as if directly transferred from the harpsichord. Bach on the piano has moved stylistically – an element of neo-Romantic interpretation is not only fashionable but also I think correct. Ax’s performance utterly failed to take wing and was not even technically flawless.

In more overtly Romantic repertoire, Ax under-interpreted.Both Schubert and Liszt often require not so much special pleading as sleight of hand – Liszt can be too full of notes and Schubert flawed without the force of character and imagination of a great performance. Wanting to be beguiled by the Petrarch Sonnets, Ax lulled his listeners. The many pianissimos were done with taste but were ultimately empty. While technically fine, Rigoletto lacked direction or originality.

The Schubert was similarly musical if foursquare. The first movement was more hectoring than dramatic or playful, while there was an absence of variety between the ’Scherzo’ and ’Trio’, and a failure to make the most of the long melodic lines in the finale. There were fine moments – the theme of the slow movement was appropriately soulful, and the episodes of the final ’Rondo’ brought much needed life to the sonata. Overall, as the whole recital showed, this interpretation exemplified the gulf between the good and the great.

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