Ax played with eruptive force during this all-Schubert recital.

03.21.11
Emanuel Ax
The Telegraph

By Ivan Hewett

For a pianist with such a stellar reputation, especially in his native America, Emanuel Ax cuts a remarkably modest figure. Portly and professorial, he hurried on to the Wigmore Hall stage for this all-Schubert recital with the distracted air of a man keen to get on with some urgent business, and plunged straight into the Four Impromptus.

Ax’s manner is so determinedly uncharismatic that it takes a while to realise just how remarkable his playing is. These pieces are full of emotional switchbacks and mysterious changes of pace – rapid one moment, then mysteriously becalmed for bars at a stretch. And like the piano accompaniments to the songs, Schubert’s piano music is often punishingly difficult, without appearing at all impressively virtuoso.

At no point did Ax appear anything other than in total command. His tone was bright but never shiny, the tricky octave passages forceful yet light. In the final variation of No 3, the rippling right-hand scale passages were a delight, but I expected that. The surprise was finding my ear attracted to the modest chordal accompaniment below, which one normally “takes as read” but here was so perfectly placed that it became eloquent.

The clarity of the playing, combined with its naturalness – Ax is never finicky – goes hand in hand with a refusal to offer up the conventional signs of “inwardness” and depth. The third Impromptu is often made to sound otherworldly, but Ax reminded us that it is actually a dance, albeit a stately one. The final B flat Sonata is even more prone to mythologising, its serene opening movement often played with a kind of unearthly grandeur. Ax took it at a moderate pace, the mysterious bass trills separating the phrases exactly placed.

All this might make Ax seem prosaic and unwilling to register the strangeness of late Schubert. In fact he is anything but. Trembling under that professorial mien is a subversive energy, which burst out most surprisingly in the reappearance of the main melody towards the end of the first movement of the sonata. Here there’s an unexpected upward shift of the harmony, which Ax played with eruptive force.