Emanuel Ax review – quicksilver agility and a

Chipping Campden music festival regularly boasts a lineup of soloists that would put many of its better-known counterparts to shame. Outstanding pianists are a feature of its programmes: Emanuel Ax has become an almost annual visitor to the Cotswold town, and the two weeks of concerts this year, the last to be planned by Charlie Bennett who founded the festival in 2002, also include recitals by Paul Lewis (the festival’s president), András Schiff and Piotr Anderszewski, as well as Christine Rice and Kate Royal, the Academy of Ancient Music and the Takács and Škampa Quartets.

Ax’s recital was devoted to Schubert and Liszt. His wonderfully straightforward, unfussy approach to piano playing is perfectly matched to Schubert’s sonatas, and his performances of the two that framed this programme, the early A major sonata D664, and the last of all, the B flat major D960, were models of intelligence and good musical sense. The account of the A major seemed relaxed but never indulgent; every phrase was perfectly weighted and individually coloured and given its own expressive space.

The B flat sonata offers different challenges of scale, of course, but Ax showed that the same principles of directness coupled with a refusal to overcomplicate things could be just as effective on that larger, more complex canvas, too. The great paragraphs of the opening movement were unfolded with unforced inevitability, the melody of the andante tinged with just the right sense of tragic regret, while the scherzo and the finale seemed perfect vehicles for his quicksilver agility.

Four of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs linked the two composers perfectly. However elaborate the decoration lavished on the songs, Ax ensured the melodic integrity of the originals was always preserved, so that, in Ständchen from Schwanengesang, for instance, Liszt’s rippling additions were never allowed to overshadow its essential melodic charm. And even in Vallée d’Obermann, from the Swiss volume of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, the most ferocious climaxes were neither overwrought nor contrived; magically, Ax managed to bring the same imperishable musical qualities to Liszt’s baggy grandiloquence as he did to Schubert’s understated profundity.

Chipping Campden music festival continues until 22 May.

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