Ax’s artistry illuminates familiar Beethoven, rare Schoenberg

Mon Apr 22, 2024 at 2:10 pm
Emanuel Ax performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Nigel Parry

Carnegie Hall’s Fall of the Weimar Republic festival has brought a period that saw near-miraculous creativity to contemporary audiences. Even with music that has stylistic traits of the 1920s and 1930s, so much of it has had the sense of artists carving out their personal voices in an era of unstable identities and shifting social possibilitiet.

There has been little, though, of that era talking to an earlier time, from when the foundation of Weimar music came. Pianist Emanuel Ax opened that door Sunday at Carnegie, with a well-crafted program of Beethoven sonatas and three sets of Schoenberg’s short keyboard pieces.

Weimar is 100 years in the past from us, the same gap as between Beethoven and Schoenberg. That alone makes it easy to hear the connection between the two composers. Ax played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique,” Sonata No. 2, and finished with the “Appassionata” Sonata No. 23; Schoenberg’s music included the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, and student work of the same name with the Op. 19 Six Little Pieces in between. 

Ax’s Beethoven was sensible, clear, beautifully formed, and grounded. Despite an occasional missed note, he played with polished and precise gradations of articulation and dynamics, and the structural details were prominent. It wasn’t earthy, but neither was it sanitized; Ax focused primarily on how Beethoven formed his harmonies and placed his thematic ideas through time, rather than the pure emotions contained within.

And he made it work for the most part. He gave considerably extra time to the small rests between chords in the introduction to Sonata No. 8, a wise choice that established the listener’s expectations as hearing the drama how Beethoven built tension and guided it to resolution. It was stimulation from the head to the heart, not vice versa, and a pleasure in itself. Ax was consistent with his logic, which meant the theme of the second movement was not only tremendously dignified but as singing as one has heard it, somehow making a legato line out of carefully placed notes and spaces.

The default interpretation of the “Appassionata” is emotional fire, it’s right there in the title, so it was even more impressive how Ax’s more objective approach succeeded. Again, the playing wasn’t low temperature in any way, not with Ax’s fleet hands. To the contrary, the deliberate way he stated the foreboding introductory statement was full of weight and tension. Rather than a rush of emotions, one heard how Beethoven constructed the rise and fall of the music, and found an inner emotional response.

The effect in the final movement of the sonata was powerful, each circling of the rumbling bass line and chiming right hand adding more substance. It felt like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, and this time getting it to the top.

This approach made for fantastic performances of the Schoenberg pieces. Though not yet absolutely atonal, the Op. 11 and Op. 19 are formally abstract while holding Schoenberg’s expressionistic manner. Ax made it easy to not only hear the diatonic snippets in the music, but how the phrases created the forms. The bass line in “Mässige Achtel” came out as the center of the entire piece, for example.

The three student works were lyrical and elegant, slightly simplified but finely made versions of Brahms, Schubert, and Chopin. The Op. 19 pieces were gorgeous and compelling, each tiny idea speaking volumes. Ax’s touch was excellent, effortless and luminous, and he held his concentration as someone’s ringing phone nearly ruined the experience of “Sehr langsam,” a handful of notes that capture inexpressible mourning.

The Sonata No. 2 was the only performance that didn’t have the same level of thinking. Amid the sanity of perspective and proportion, it was unbalanced on a granular level. The opening movement, marked “Allegro vivace,” was far too slow. For the larger form, that meant the contrast between it and the following movements, especially the Largo, was insufficient. It also meant that every note felt sluggish, too heavy and also underlined and mannered in a way that was very un-Ax like.

On a weekend with the release of Taylor Swift’s latest opus, one wondered about the nature of contemporary fandom. Ax is immensely popular among classical music audiences, and in New York in particular. Yet that doesn’t mean that all of his fans, like Swift’s, are actually listening to the music. With the phones ringing, not just during “Sehr langsam” but over and over while he played encores— a lovely, shapely Chopin Nocturne, Op. 27, no. 1, and a more casual Valse oubliée, No. 1 by Liszt—one was left pondering the difference between a listener who loves a great artist and someone who loves themselves for loving an artist.

Yefim Bronfman plays Schubert, Schumann, Salonen, Chopin, and Prokofiev, 3 p.m. May 5.

Leave a Comment

" "


 Subscribe via RSS