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Piano and Voice Salute Chopin, Schumann and Those They Inspired

03.18.10
Emanuel Ax
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

Emanuel Ax could easily have celebrated the joint 200th anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann with a series of solo piano recitals. Instead, in three programs at Carnegie Hall, he tried something fresher.

He began in late January by exploring the works for cello and piano by Chopin and Schumann with his old friend Yo-Yo Ma. Last month he presented a thoughtfully conceived solo recital. And on Wednesday night, with the soprano Dawn Upshaw, in lovely voice, he concluded with a fascinating program of songs by Chopin and Schumann, with some Chopin piano pieces mixed in.

In tribute to these masters Mr. Ax asked three composers to write new works for this series. First came Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering Schumann” for cello and piano. In the solo program Mr. Ax played Thomas Adès’s Three Mazurkas, modern-day riffs on Chopin. Wednesday’s program was to have included a new work by Osvaldo Golijov, but Mr. Golijov was unable to write it in time. Instead Ms. Upshaw and Mr. Ax gave the American premiere of “Piano Lessons,” a new song cycle written for them by Stephen Prutsman, which sets six poems by Billy Collins.

Chopin’s 17 collected songs, written throughout his life and published as Opus 17, are all settings of Polish poems, perhaps one reason they are seldom performed by non-Polish singers. The songs are not what devotees of Chopin’s rhapsodic piano pieces might expect. The music is at the service of the text: direct, unadorned and eloquent.

In “Gdzie Lubi” (“There Where She Loves”), about a lovelorn young woman, Chopin evokes a gurgling stream with just a simple, undulant accompanimental figure in the piano, which cushions the wafting melody, tenderly sung here by Ms. Upshaw. She was especially affecting in the bittersweet “Melodya” (“Melody”), which required her to execute a high trill on the word “dzwigali.” Try that at home.

Ms. Upshaw sat in a chair onstage next to a small table with a vase of flowers while Mr. Ax gave a lilting account of Chopin’s Four Mazurkas (Op. 41). The setup evoked the salons in Paris where Chopin was the most comfortable performing. Mr. Ax also bought refinement and sensitivity to Chopin’s Two Nocturnes (Op. 27).

The Billy Collins poems that Mr. Prutsman set to music tell of a youngster enduring piano lessons from an eccentric teacher and struggling to practice scales. Mr. Prutsman’s music cleverly combines evocations of five-finger exercises and Alberti bass figures with hazy harmonies, hints of mellow jazz, a two-step stride and a nod to Debussy.

After intermission Ms. Upshaw and Mr. Ax presented a well-chosen set of 12 Schumann songs, mixing works from 1840, when Schumann was nearly obsessed with the genre, and seldom-heard songs from his later years, all exquisitely performed.

For their second and final encore they offered what Ms. Upshaw called “the first song that Osvaldo Golijov wrote for me,” “Lúa Descolorida” (“Colorless Moon”), an aching lament by a Galician poet, which in this haunting performance was somehow a fitting way to end a tribute to Chopin and Schumann.