Ax’s polished technique stays on the surface of Chopin and Schubert

Sun Apr 23, 2017 at 2:00 pm
Emanuel Ax performed Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

Emanuel Ax performed Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

The impromptu is a deceptive form. By title alone, it may be thought of as modest, casual, even a little disposable — it should emulate improvisation, after all. But that’s where, in the hands of the best composers, the form can be a way to explore universes and a means to the deepest expression.

Pianist Emanuel Ax played a program of impromptus Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, including some of the finest in the style, from Schubert and Chopin, and a new one from Samuel Carl Adams. The outlier was the big finale, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3, rounding out a program with an emphasis on pianism and expression. If only one of those two qualities came to the fore in the concert, it was fine enough to make for a pleasant but forgettable evening.

Ax’s pianism was superb, but it was not too much to have expected more. The Chopin sonata, and the Impromptus and Fantaisie-Impromptu are full of interpretive riches. They are equaled and complemented by the four Impromptus, D. 935, from Schubert. Ax presented the notes, often with great beauty, but with nothing of the composers’ extra-musical thoughts and feelings, and few of his own ideas beyond assembling the program.

Ax’s touch and phrasing handled every dynamic and articulation with smooth clarity. In fast passages — and his tempos tended to fall on the quicker side — his fingering was technically flawless, lively, and musically lovely.

But with so much in this music to consider, from the enigmas in Schubert to the drama in Chopin, Ax had nothing to say. He seemed eminently attentive to each individual note but unmindful of where things were heading.

In the Schubert Impromptus, there was freedom in his hands but no spontaneity or large-scale thinking. While it may seem paradoxical to consider improvisation vis-a-vis a notated and published composition, that is exactly what Schubert does in this set of pieces. From an opening statement, the music explores variations, juxtapositions, alternate paths. Schubert’s movement is from sunny charm to a quasi-mystical darkness and turmoil.

These are deep musical and expressive journeys — they can be approached objectively in that Schubert also demonstrates how to use improvisational ideas as the building blocks for an exquisite structure. But Ax conveyed neither, even as, superficially, his playing was splendid, especially in the Theme and Variations No. 3. His music making was beautiful but not beguiling.

The Chopin Impromptus were equally sharply and brightly etched, and equally flat. They may give a first impression of being lighter in expressive tone than the Schubert, but underneath there is substantial drama.

Ax’s playing lacked ambition. Chopin offers so much, especially an expressive use of tempo and dialogue between the hands, and a sense of spontaneity and improvisation is fundamental to his music. None of that was in the performance; the Op. 29 was disappointingly contained, and Ax skated over the introverted, minor-key music of Op. 36. The Fantaisie-Impromptu’s breathtaking rush belied the lack of oxygen.

The Sonata performance was a bit more satisfying, in that Ax presented more consideration to the music. But his tempos were off — too slow to build up enough energy, too fast to completely cohere. His opening phrase in the Allegro maestoso was explosive, so it was a surprise to encounter little contrasting feeling as the music slid into mysterious reverie. The Largo lacked tenderness, and there was no rhythmic tension throughout. His genial encores of a Chopin nocturne and waltz were of a piece with the rest of his playing.

Adams’ Impromptu (after Schubert) fit both the theme of the program and, unfortunately, of the performance. Adams did indeed follow Schubert, starting with his own version of the rolling lines and arpeggios that fill the 19th century composer’s piano music. The piece barely moved past this, though, and for a composer who has shown a clear individual voice, it frequently indulged in imitations of his father John Adams’ music, which was both unsettling and disappointing.

This new impromptu was also not true to the spirit of the form. Ax would make his way to a phrase, then the piece would stop and pound itself repeatedly and with no variation against what was a dead end. A good improviser would use that phrase to explore structure, form, and depth, but Adams’ writing would declare itself done and move on to the next episode, realizing none of them with any substance.

Yefim Bronfman plays Bartók, Schumann, Debussy, and Stravinsky, 8 p.m., May 4.

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