While many argue that Baden is one of the nicest places in the world to live, the great concert halls of nearby Zurich and Lucerne have always overshadowed its reputation as a centre for fine music. Recently, however, thanks to the diligent efforts of two industrious musicians with Baden connections, small concert series have featured some superlative musical events. For 20 years, Russian-born Marina Korendfeld has brought the best of young new talents and seasoned configurations to Baden, where they often perform in the picturesque villa of the legendary industrialist Walter Boveri. Even more recently, gifted Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder has launched his “Piano District” series in another striking venue that recalls the growth of industry in Baden’s Gründerzeit.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Schnyder’s series runs in what was once the production site of the local newspaper; the audience sits in a space where printing presses once thundered beneath heavy iron beams, load-bearing hooks and conveyor belts. Tokens of that history are still visible on high. But now the machines, grease and grime of the process are gone, huge echo dampers stick like white chrysalis to the ceiling and the whole hall is otherwise painted black. Dramatically lit, the pianist’s raised podium is the sole focus.

Emanuel Ax began his concert with Schubert’s Four Impromptus D935, a work which bears a striking resemblance to an elaborate four-movement sonata. His Allegro moderato, began with a bang, but moved quickly from the demonstrative to the lyrical. From where I was sitting, I could see Ax’s soft facial expressions, and how his lips often moved in half-comment or song. Though his hands were hidden, the high spotlight cast their shadows on the back wall. Seeing them, I could follow the way he rolled his lower arms into the keys.

Ax has said he admires Beethoven most for his innovation, and the power and dynamism in the Allegretto mirrored the work of that master, while his return to the simple and sweet melody at the start most gave me a palpable sense of “coming home”. The Andante delighted with a feast of variations. Notes so delicately intertwined as to be filigree were followed by a carnival-like variation, and what seemed a fiery argument, as if one voice were trying to calm another. The Allegro scherzando − with its scale runs, trills, arpeggios and passages played at warp speed − was likely the most technically demanding of the four impromptus. It called up a whole party of scurrying little girls dressed in poplin. Indeed, the listener’s transposition into visuals was its own embellishment, and rarely has that been as easy to do.  

Chopin’s Four Impromptus were far shorter, but no less imaginative. What makes Ax’s genius is that he not only brings tremendous ebullience to his rendition, but also unique intonation. He gives the music – even music one knows well – a strikingly new and pulsing presence. His textures alternate seamlessly between a tight fabric of thousands of notes and the air of an expanded breath. Sometimes a single, close to imperceptible, pause before an attack amplifies the impact of the first note to bear tremendous effect. That said, in the third impromptu, Ax’s ornamentation seemed to take flight, and the Fantasie was by far the most sensitive and poetic rendition I have ever heard.

After the break, the second of Schubert’s Three Piano Pieces D946, was marked by a push-pull of sounds that had the weight and kinetic energy of a printing press, and Ax’s lead line was consistently as clear as a bell. It was a stunning rendition, but for me, it was the evening’s final offer, Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor, that made this concert a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Its first movement Allegro maestoso was marked by a lower voice so peppered with notes that it seemed almost dissonant, until it wove its way in serpentine lines towards Romantic harmonies. In the Scherzo, Ax’s tempo at the start came close to defying gravity, while his middle section’s melody was bronze-like and full-bodied. After a theme in the Largo that was, by the composer’s design, sing-song enough to figure as a Hollywood film score, Ax came to the movement’s ending and played as poignantly as if he were pulling out the very last thread of a life. The finale was absolutely riveting! If Chopin’s genius lay in his ability to make a mere handful of notes say a great deal, then Ax has done the composer great justice. Never have I heard Chopin played so expressively, narratively, and poetically as the artist did for the Baden audience.

*****