There are very few artists whose connection to Tanglewood runs deeper than Emanuel Ax's. For more than four decades, he has been playing here as an orchestral soloist, recitalist, or as part of different chamber combinations. Not only is he usually playing in multiple performances every summer, but he often attends other shows as a spectator. Regular concertgoers love to talk to him and I remember an evening in 2013 when I saw a pair wearing t-shirts inscribed “maniacs”!

Emanuel Ax © Lisa Marie Mazzucco | Sony Classical
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco | Sony Classical

Invited to perform as part of the current online cycle “Great Performers in Recital”, Ax selected a subset of the series of works he was supposed to play at Carnegie Hall in May. In the anniversary year, it was a Beethoven recital dedicated to the composer’s beginnings, although the preamble, Für Elise, with its two harmonically contrasting episodes, was composed in 1810. The performance being pre-recorded, the pianist was saved from the distraction of all the recognizing interjections usually rising from a hall full of former amateur piano students. He played the Bagatelle without any unnecessary sugarcoating and sentimentality.

The rest of the program was devoted to the last two of the three Op.2 Sonatas that Beethoven dedicated to Haydn. Underlining the lyrical character of the Piano Sonata no. 2 and the grandeur of the Sonata no. 3, Ax interpreted these lesser-played works with typical care and unshowiness. He made clear the composer’s debt to the past, not only to Haydn’s Sturm und Drang style, but to Mozart as well (the lightness of touch and the gracefulness with which he rendered the structural arch in the Op.2 no.2 Grazioso were remarkable indeed). From the abruptness marking the first movement of the A Major Sonata to the transitions in C Major’s Finale, he shed light on those passages that make these early works uniquely Beethovenian, by virtue of their harmonic inventiveness and dramatic restlessness. He brought forward multiple hints foreshadowing the future. The unexpected emergence of an almost Schubertian melody among the pouncing and confident utterances in the Second Sonata’s Allegro vivace was charmingly marked. Similarly, the pianist stressed the sudden metamorphosis – in the Largo appassionato – of a choral-like theme into a brief phrase full of longing and melancholy. He pointed out the Romantic character of the middle section of the Third Sonata’s Adagio that could have easily found its way in the composer’s late work.

Recorded in the luminous Studio E in Tanglewood’s recently built Linde Center (huge green trees in full foliage were reflected in the Steinway’s sheen) the hour-long recital proved again what a wonderful Beethoven interpreter Emanuel Ax is. Every phrase was beautifully shaped. His range of dynamics and his choice of colors were always adequate. Ax’s mild-mannered pianism might be far from the brashness that contemporary witnesses associate with young Beethoven’s piano interpretations. Since tempestuousness is not something missing from today’s musical readings, we might as well be happy hearing something else.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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