One proud Yale father made it late to Parents’ Weekend, having been away “on business” in California. When he finally arrived in New Haven on Wednesday, he took his daughter, Sarah Ax ’05, out to dinner and brought his internationally acclaimed piano playing to Yale and New Haven.
Emanuel Ax has been celebrated for his flawless technique — itself at the service of his inspired musicality — since he won the First Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1974. The recital he gave at Trinity Church Wednesday night, which featured an intimate yet powerful program he has been playing for a while (most recently in San Francisco this past weekend), showed his audience why.
I was lucky enough to interview Ax from his home Monday night. Though soft-spoken, he struck me as an exceptionally gracious, articulate and insightful man. His self-expression was eloquent and straightforward; nothing in his vocabulary pretended to convey music as a lofty picture that only he, the artist, was capable of painting. On the contrary, he described his approach to making music in terms of earnestness and effort.
“You throw yourself into whatever you need to do and try to be a good interpreter, in much the same way as an actor would,” Ax said.
As soon as he began his program with Debussy’s muted and impressionistic first set of “Images,” Ax’s earnest efforts proved him a musically gracious, articulate and insightful performer, too. His hands flew together with such flawless facility that even in the most difficult of passages, one would think he were shuffling cards. The restrained, liquid touch he gave to his percussive instrument in “Reflets dans L’Eau” evoked tinkling water droplets and small waves close to breaking. It was so fluid that its ending seemed impossible, and I was left wondering what the water had reflected.
With Bach’s Partita No. 5, Ax demonstrated his eloquent straightforwardness musically: each movement, particularly the Allemande, had an elegantly proud (though never showy) stateliness to it. His posture throughout this piece and others he played was far from upright, but it hardly mattered. Shoulders rounded, he looked almost puppet-like, as if he had so well mastered his instrument that he himself appeared an instrument of something else.
In Liszt’s “Duei Sonetti del Petrarca” and “Rigoletto Paraphrase de Concert,” Ax had no need for the flashy over-dramatization of lesser pianists, whose well-meaning overcompensation for what they lack spoils what is inherent to the music.
“You do what you think the composer would like to express,” said Ax.
Technically and musically quite able, Ax communicated infinite shades of yearning, from plaintive to anguished. Lucky for his audience that the piece Ax had initially planned on performing instead of Liszt — a new composition by the British composer Nicholas Maw — was not completed in time. A champion of contemporary music, Ax said he sees its performance as “important — but more than that, it’s exciting.”
Equally exciting was Ax’s performance of Schubert’s Sonata in C minor.
“The Schubert is just a great piece,” Ax said. “I wanted to learn it … I’m playing it for the second time!”
This second performance was so confident and beautiful that Ax proved the music he plays is in his bones, not just his fingers. Ax led his audience by the hand from each of the Sonata’s four movements to the next, exploring every shade, shape and tone of each plane along the way.
“The one thing that sometimes makes me feel good when I play music now,” Ax said, “is once in a while someone will come up and say, you know, ‘You’ve made me feel better about things.'” The standing ovation and minuteslong stream of applause the classical superstar received seem to indicate that he should feel pretty good indeed.