Emanuel AX is one of the most complete pianists of today – technically solid, deeply intelligent, and with a heart. His repertoire is catholic and his programme took in Schoenberg, Bach, Liszt and Schubert. Schoenberg's Six Little Pieces, Op 19, replaced the advertised piece by John Adams, a welcome substitution after London's recent surfeit of the overrated American.
The Schoenberg miniatures are classics, if music so open-minded can be described as such. Dating from 1911, the most exciting period of Schoenberg's career, they are, on the one hand, a glossary of the expressionistic language new at that time and, on the other, a marvellous test of a pianist's expressive potential and technical control, for the least flicker of insecurity will be magnified in the context of their aphoristic precision. Ax played them with obvious enjoyment and affection, every note charged with meaning while occurring naturally.
Ax rarely reached this level in the rest of his recital, though two of Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets were warmly expressive, and true to their origins as song settings. Why he had to play the tawdry "Rigoletto" paraphrase is a mystery, for he didn't exactly relish its pianistic flatulence.
The playful G major scales and crisp chords opening Bach's Fifth Partita followed on nicely from the Schoenberg; the Allemande was flexible and a little stealthy, the Corrente light and staccato, the Passepied and final Gigue sturdier, though the suite as a whole was predominantly quiet and gentle, and rather blandly characterised.
Nor was Schubert's C minor Sonata, after the interval, quite as richly rewarding as one had hoped. Perhaps Ax's recordings of mainstream repertoire, often models of their kind, have raised expectations too high. But he never seemed to establish the all-important longer perspective and sometimes he seemed to be free-wheeling. The first movement started too hastily and even the second subject was blustery. The chromatic meanderings near the end of the development – as if the music has got caught in a mountain mist – were simply casual, almost offhand. Soft playing is all very well, and Ax has probably never forced a sound in his life, but a lot of the Minuet sounded too like a mumble, while the finale lacked tension.