Birthday concerts are strange things. If a hall is going to celebrate your birthday, you’d want to be in the audience and have some of your favourite musicians entertain you. Instead, it’s just another concert where you have to perform yourself and the only difference is you get to choose a programme that may exceed the scope of a normal evening recital. Such was the case with Emanuel Ax’s 70th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall, where he treated us with a three-course Schumann recital consisting of early piano solo works, the Piano Quartet and Quintet, and the song cycle Dichterliebe.

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

Ax has had a brilliant career as a soloist and, at seventy, is still going strong. He is equally known and respected as a chamber musician, especially his long-standing partnership with Yo-Yo Ma. At heart, I think he is a chamber musician in whatever he plays, recalling a Prom when he played the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Bernard Haitink as if it was the most intimate chamber piece. Therefore, it was not surprising that chamber music and song played an important part here.

To share the stage, Ax had chosen the exciting US-based Dover Quartet and the eminent British baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside. Ax began on his own, playing Schumann’s delightfully playful Arabesque with total clarity of tone and texture. This was followed by the E-flat major Piano Quartet: the lesser- known sibling of the Piano Quintet, if you like. I have a fondness for this piece, especially the slow third movement with the gorgeous cello melody, but somehow this performance didn’t quite soar. The playing of three members of the Dover Quartet had precision and crispness and the music making with Ax was amiable, but the emotional temperature was somewhat low and didn’t capture the sense of yearning in Schumann’s music. After the first interval, Ax began the second course with Schumann’s Op.12 Fantasiestücke, played with lyricism, fluency and great charm, especially the penultimate piece Traumes Wirren which sounded like his party piece. Overall though, his palette tended towards the softer colours.

Simon Keenlyside © Uwe Arens
Simon Keenlyside
© Uwe Arens

When Ax brought Simon Keenlyside on stage for Dichterliebe, however, the intensity level in the hall shot up. What is amazing about this singer is the way he takes risks, bringing visceral power to the performance. It was a commanding performance and the audience lived every twist and turn of the brooding poet. Words were super clear, even from the back row, and the intensity of the emotions was palpable. Keenlyside's voice is now darker and weightier, and his priority is not to produce a beautiful legato but to communicate. In Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome, one could almost see the solemn Cologne Cathedral by the Rhine, and in the following Ich grolle nicht (I bear no grudge), Keenlyside was almost singing through gritted teeth and we felt the poet’s pain. Even in the lighter moments such as Im wunderschönen Monat Mai or Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen, one could sense impending heartbreak.

Ax had an equally important role to play in the storytelling, for the piano often picks up the sentiment when the singer tails off mid-air. His modesty makes him an ideal song pianist, and his playing was beautifully judged throughout, totally at one with the vocal line. The flowing arpeggios in Ich will meine Seele tauchen and the cascading, sighing motifs of Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen were delicately handled, and in the final song, after the poet “buries his sorrow in a coffin”, he played the postlude with uttermost sincerity, giving the work a gentle closure.

After this towering performance we felt quite full, but Ax treated us to a third course with Schumann’s exuberant Piano Quintet, this time with all four members of the Dover Quartet. Ax showed no fatigue at all, and his playing was as youthful and lively as the quartet's! The Dover's muscular sound blended well with Ax’s warm lyricism, and each shone in the solo too, especially Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt in the mournful theme in the second movement. The Scherzo was particularly vivacious. After the performance, it was Ax who was congratulating the young Dover musicians rather than them celebrating his birthday. Strangely, there were no flowers or champagne for the hard-working birthday boy (maybe there was a party later). Still, it was the modesty and generosity of Emanuel Ax as a musician and a person that shone through. Happy Birthday and may there be many more years of happy music-making!