IN: Reviews

Emanuel Ax Programs Schubertian Journeys


Baritone Andre Schuen with Thomas Ades (Hilary Scott photo)

This summer in Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, pianist Emanuel Ax is curating a six-concert series devoted to Schubert and contemporary composers. Thursday night’s summery repertoire (Program 2 of 6) featured the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Thomas Adès in works by Schubert and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Ozawa Hall was packed and the back lawn fairly full for a cool evening that began with five contrasting Schubert songs, ably sung by baritone André Schuen in his North American debut. Preferring crisp enunciation and rhythmic intensity to sinuous lyricism, Schuen excelled in Schubert’s longer songs (“Auf der Brücke,” D. 853 and “Wilkommen und Abschied,” D. 767) — the latter recalled Schubert’s “Erlkönig” and demanded the most expressive contrasts from pianist Thomas Adès.

Originally from the Ladin-speaking area of Italy’s South Tyrol, Schuen posseses a ringing baritone well-known on middle-European stages (esp. Salzburg, Vienna, and in Perm under the dynamic Teodor Currentzis). His German was ausgezeichnet throughout, albeit with traces of a southern accent (pronouncing “Blick” as “Blieck” and Pferde” as “Pfiede”). While Ozawa Hall can swallow soft singing (I was seated in Row N against the wall), Schuen’s intimate and intense rendering of “Der Wanderer an den Mond,” D. 870  recalled the end of Winterreise. His  full voice and falsetto were well controlled and perfectly matched Adès lightness of touch at the keyboard. The most forward-thinking accompaniment of the set appeared in the magical “Nachtstück,” D. 672, with unusual chords in the coda and the only instance of heavy (pp) pedaling.

Since graduating from the Salzburg Mozarteum, Shuen has become a specialist in Lieder while adding operatic roles to his repertoire; later this summer in Aspen he will sing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and a recital of Schubert Lieder with pianist Andreas Haefliger. Thomas Adès proved an able and sensitive partner, giving his audience much to look forward to in future BSO and chamber concerts: last year was his first of three seasons as the BSO’s Deborah and Philip Edmundson Artistic Partner (as conductor, coach, and pianist), and he will direct Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music in 2018 and 2019.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Shroud for string quartet (2016) demanded a wide range of virtuosic playing from the Emerson String Quartet, who premiered it last September in Akron, Ohio. The darker first and last movements (a largely homophonic, lyrical Threnody and a Lament with long, stepwise, Brucknerian lines) memorialize two friends of the composer’s youth, Christopher Mills and Dag Jiggens. The three central movements (an Ivesian March framed by two intermezzi) dedicated specifically to the Emerson Quartet, range from transparently orchestrated scherzos to disjunct melodies soaring over Paul Watkins’ pizzicato cello. Threnody borrowed an effective technique from Tchaikovsky, fracturing a single melody into two parts and dramatically alternating its notes between violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer.

After intermission, BSO bassist Edwin Barker and Adès joined three of the Emersons for Schubert’s charming Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (The Trout), which was scored for single violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano at the request of Sylvester Paumgartner, a friend of Schubert’s close pal Johann Michael Vogl. Violist Lawrence Dutton and pianist Adès were the standouts of this aggressive and dramatic performance, with Edwin Barker’s bass providing much appreciated depth and richness to the work.


Program 1 of this fantastic six-part series, heard on July 6, began with four chamber ensembles led by Emanuel Ax on piano. Alexandra Smither (soprano) and William Hudgins (clarinet) presented Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (Shepherd on the Rock) in German (D. 965, coached by soprano Dawn Upshaw) and Christopher Reames (tenor) and James Somerville (horn) collaborated on Shubert’s valedictory “Auf dem Strom” (D. 943, coached by Alan Smith). Fifteen vocal fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center sang the vocal quartet “Des Tages Weihe” (D. 763) and mezzo-soprano TMC Fellow Kelly Newberry was the featured soloist in the male chorus “Ständchen “(D. 920), both coached by Sanford Sylvan. The second half of the program included three delightful works for piano four hands played by Anna Polonsky and Peter Serkin. Schubert’s monumental Allegro in A minor, Lebensstürme (D. 947) was followed by his Andantino varié variations (D. 823), and the program concluded with a delicate rendering of the Rondo in A Major (D. 951).


The series will continue at Ozawa Hall with four more programs in August. Notable soloists joining Mr. Ax will include cellist Yo-Yo Ma (August 17), pianist Garrick Ohlsson (in a solo recital of Schubert and Scriabin on August 8), violinist Pamela Frank (August 17), mezzo soprano Jamie Barton (August 3), and baritone Simon Keenleyside (August 23). TMC Fellows Kelly Newberry and William Socolof will be presented in sets of Schubert songs on August 17.

New works from contemporary composers range from two new songs from John Harbison (Poem and The House on the Marshland, August 17), Colin Jacobsen’s Head, Heart (August 3 world premiere, based on a story by Lydia Davis), and Nico Muhly’s Good Night (world premiere on August 17) to Samuel Adams’ 2016 Impromptu (after Schubert), played by Emanuel Ax on August 23.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

Comments Off on Emanuel Ax Programs Schubertian Journeys