A Reading of Schubert, Both Fiery and Fresh

02.27.11
Emanuel Ax
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

The opening performances of Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope festival at Alice Tully Hall were high-profile new-music programs, but the idea behind this nonthematic series is that it should touch on the breadth of New York’s musical life. There will be a lot more new music, and early music as well. But on Saturday evening the festival set its sights on the 19th-century Viennese mainstream, presenting a Schubert recital by the pianist Emanuel Ax.

Mr. Ax’s signature style — a shifting balance of poetry, earthiness and analytical clarity — suits this music, not least because his fluid changes of focus seem to mirror Schubert’s impulses so precisely. That is an illusion of course. Other pianists make entirely different interpretive emphases sound just as convincing, and that is where the magic of great performance lies: in the ability to make a specific sequence of choices sound inevitable and fresh even for listeners who think they know the music inside out.

Mr. Ax began with the second set of Impromptus (D. 935) and quickly established the sense that his Schubert would be unpredictable. When you think of the F minor Impromptu that opens the set, for instance, you imagine a fairly easygoing, ruminative theme: a rolled chord followed by a descending, dotted sequence that sounds like a rubber ball bouncing slowly down a staircase. Not here. Mr. Ax’s reading was fast, fiery and insistent, a small drama that found a gentle resolution only at the very end. And he played the piece with a conviction that made that interpretation sound as if a tense approach were the only sensible way.

The other impromptus were as vividly characterized, and if some of Mr. Ax’s reconsiderations were open to debate — his disinclination to linger in the chordal phrases that begin No. 2 arguably deny Schubert’s request for a legato line — they kept his performances lively and surprising. And even small touches, like Mr. Ax’s sharp accenting in No. 4, seemed to pull the listener closer than usual to the heart of this vital music.

In the program’s two sonatas Mr. Ax was less freewheeling but no less thoughtful. The Sonata in A (D. 664) thrives on calm reflection, and that was what Mr. Ax gave it, along with a sweetly singing line in the Andante and a healthy measure of textural sparkle in the finale.

The big B flat Sonata (D. 960), to which Mr. Ax devoted the second half, was notable for a probing spirit that put a spotlight on Schubert’s inventiveness. The contrast between Schubert’s melodies and accompaniments — the luxurious, free-floating theme in the first movement, for example, is supported by an ominous, insistent rumble — has rarely sounded quite so stark.

But the real joy in Mr. Ax’s account had less to do with such details, however enlightening, than with the broader conception and its extremes of gracefulness and tumult, meditation and unbuttoned passion.