At his Merrill Auditorium recital on Saturday afternoon, pianist Emanuel Ax played the kind of thoughtfully conceived program that has become his hallmark over a 40-plus-year career. True, if you give his program only a cursory glance, it might seem commonplace, given that it was mostly Chopin and Schubert, with one new work, by Samuel Adams. But beneath the surface, the program, presented by Portland Ovations, was full of interesting tendrils connecting the works and composers.
Ax began with Schubert’s Impromptus (D. 935), one of the composer’s two sets of four, and then offered Chopin’s four Impromptus as a companion set. After intermission, he played the Impromptu No. 2 by Adams, a work from a set of four composed as responses to the Schubert Impromptus heard on the first half.
The closing work, Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor (Op. 58), might seem an outlier, but many listeners regard the Impromptus, when played together, as a quasi-sonata, and the plentiful allusions of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat minor, scattered through the Adams work, had listeners hankering for a bona fide, complete sonata, after all those relatively short pieces.
Ax takes a more dramatic approach to the Impromptus than many other pianists, but that is not to say that they are all fire: Poetry, expressed in subtle shifts of dynamics and coloration, is an equally crucial part of Ax’s arsenal, and it gives his accounts of these four works the character of private ruminations, in which contradictory emotions do battle, or are sometimes intertwined.
A good example of that occurs midway through the first Impromptu. Ax did nothing to subdue the tensions in the rumbling bass figuration heard at that point, but he countered them by letting Schubert’s graceful, single-line theme glide gently and sweetly over the tumult. The contrasts were even greater in the third Impromptu, where the bright playful opening gives way to more complex, tempestuous thoughts, and in the fourth, where the recurrence of the dancelike opening figure keeps turbulence largely at bay until the work’s explosive ending.
Adams, a composer who lives in San Francisco, was born in 1985, 11 years after Ax’s victory at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, brought him to international attention. His Impromptu No. 2 is an eclectic, mostly neo-Romantic piece, very much in the spirit of the Schubert and Chopin works, but with just enough anarchic energy, bursts of dissonance and stretches of ambient Minimalism to clarify its 21st century pedigree.
It would have been nice to hear the Adams in the context for which the composer created it, as a set of four, placed between the corresponding pieces in the Schubert set. But on Saturday, Ax pursued a different idea – a contrast between the Schubert and Chopin Impromptus, which the interpolation of the Adams pieces would have complicated.
Heard side by side, Chopin’s Impromptus sound freer and more mercurial than Schubert’s, even though they explore some of the same emotional terrain, and offer similar juxtapositions of anxiety and joy, bittersweet melodies and glimpses of the energy of the ballroom. Ax played all four with exquisite clarity and detail, with the posthumously published Impromptu in C-sharp minor (Op. 66) serving as a vigorous finale, despite the fact that it was the earliest Chopin composed.
The qualities that enlivened Ax’s account of the Chopin Impromptus were magnified in his performance of the Sonata No. 3, which also afforded a good opportunity to marvel at the purely technical powers that underpin Ax’s spirited, multifaceted interpretations.
We tend to downplay technique these days, probably because so many musicians use an ability to dazzle as cover for having little in the way of fresh ideas. But this work, which (with the exception of the meditative, shapely Largo) is built of dense, speedy music, with ample thunder offsetting its melodic richness, makes extraordinary mechanical demands. Ax played it commandingly and with complete textural transparency. Most importantly, though, you never had the sense that his technique was the main attraction; he put it, consistently, at the service of revealing the complex emotional worlds that Chopin (as well as Schubert and Adams) created.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: