Emmanuel Ax, Wigmore Hall

Something of a star in the US, Emanuel Ax is less well-known in the UK. His on-stage manner is diffident, almost apologetic, but this does not translate to his confident and wonderfully smooth playing. Though his Polish roots have made Chopin an obvious specialism, his broad, firmly bedded legato makes Schubert a natural choice, too.

What marked this all-Schubert recital as something out of the ordinary was its magnificent sense of composure. Extremes of emotion and heavy articulation of gesture were eschewed in favour of long-breathed rhythms and a focus on the narrow (and at times imperceptible) line between melody and figuration. Beginning with the second set of Impromptus, Ax showed how even the most unassuming arpeggio or bass-line progression draws its expressive qualities from Schubert's inexhaustible lyrical flow. The programme was completed by an elegant and poised performance of the "little" A major Sonata, D664, and by a mixed but compelling interpretation of the sprawling masterpiece in B flat, the Sonata D960.

The problems in the latter work derived from a lapse of concentration in the first movement. One or two muddied bass trills and rhythmic hesitancies, insignificant in themselves, seemed to shift Ax's focus from the whole to the part, causing an unevenness in tone and metre. But after a brief pause came a slow movement of breathtaking composure, audacious in its steadiness and the minute control of the voicing. In this, as in the rest of the concert, Ax showed how the rich vein of measured sorrow that runs throughout Schubert's work answers better to a steady gaze than to nervous glancing, offering an instructive reminder that melancholy yields a peace of mind every bit as necessary and valuable as joy.

Read the full review here

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