Ozawa Hall and the lawn behind overflowed with devotees of Schubert, Pamela Frank, Emanuel Ax, and Yo-Yo Ma (not necessarily in that order) last night. Resplendent in a glittering and pleated getup that evoked a caryatid in black, Frank made a confident and welcome appearance. Though an injury had kept her off the concert stage for ten years [BMInt’s review of her 2012 surprise return is here], we could discern no hesitancy in her bravura and larger than parlor scale take on Schubert Sonatina No 3 in G Minor for pianoforte and violin, D. 408 with pianist and “Schubert’s Summer Journey” interlocutor Emanuel Ax. Frank deploys attitude to spare which comes forth whether her tones sweetly floated or stentorized. Ax drew glimmering dapples of quietude from the Steinway (smoothly voiced by technician Steve Carver). His status as luminous lapidary has never been more evident, and much of the time his touch was so facile as to sound like bowing. Overall we witnessed a satisfying exchange between masters employing almost vocal production.
Premieres of two short songs featuring Tanglewood Music Center Fellows [TMCF] followed. About his “Goodnight” composer Nico Muhly writes, “I have always loved the first song in Winterreise…it requires a great pianist to tease out its hypnotic repeated chord patterns.” He added accompanimental “hiccups” and lyrically set words of Ian Bostridge and Schubert. Bass-baritone William Socolof decried the words with perfect enunciation and pleasing warmth.
John Harbison responded to Ax’s summons with a setting of words of Louise Glück. The composer wanted to see what happened when he turned the poet’s “divination of her vocation … into his own medium…grounded by a “Schubertian accompaniment figure.” TMCF Fellow Kelly Newberry used a luscious mezzo timbre to dramatically embody an Erlkönigesque monodrama, while Ax did his best Gerald Moore act. References to suffering and flowers evoked German Romantic sensibility, though Schubert would probably not have chosen to end a stanza with the work “ink.”
Why does something amusing happen so often when Yo Yo Ma makes his entrance? In Rockport a couple of years ago, he turned his chair to play to the backwall seascape and commenced a Bach solo work with his back to the crowd … “just kidding,” he quickly said. Last night he knocked over the music stand and grinned when the stagehand micro-arranged the microphones. He clearly likes to disarm us, though he certainly doesn’t need to. Yet we may once in a while need to be reminded that the possessor of such sovereign technique and beatific musicality is human. Schubert would have heard something completely different from a performance of his Sonata for pianoforte and arpeggione (or cello) D. 821 than this masterpiece of extrovert poetic interpretation that Ma and Ax produced. The fretted arpeggione and the Viennese piano are simply incapable of the extravagant soulfulness that Ma and Ax poured out. (Hear what an arpeggione sounds like below.)
Everything Ma does, even a page turn, is freighted with high art. With his gestures and facial expressions, he illustrates what he wants us to feel. He also seems to inspire his partners to generosity of expression. In this sonata Ma became both the benign overseer and gifted seer. His understated pianissimos ached and drew us in. He glowed as the sun, and even when his partner got the tune and briefly eclipsed him, his corona flamed. In the high ranges of his instrument, his intoning remained impeccable. When he wanted it so, his bow could be of unlimited length. Although appearing for the umpteenth time in celebrity partnership, the long-time colleagues gave every impression of journeying with Schubert afresh.
Schubert’s Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major for piano, violin, and cello blazed as a large-caliber projectile right out of universe, as De Koven might say. No one stinted nor oversold. Ax acquitted himself as an exquisite tone doctor and high priest of Schubert; Frank projected flights of soulful rapture, but transcending the sterling silver qualities of his peers, Ma seemed to beatify the joy of music making.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer