A Summer Home for Schubert at Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood I, hosted by Emanuel Ax

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A Schubertiade. Moritz von Schwind, watercolor
A Schubertiade. Moritz von Schwind, watercolor

Tanglewood: Ozawa Hall: Schubert’s Summer Journey, Program 1, July 6, 2017

Emanuel Ax, piano; William Hudgins, clarinet; James Sommerville, horn; Alexandra Smither, soprano; Kelly Newberry, miezzo-soprano; Christopher Reames, tenor; vocal fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center; Anna Polonsky and Peter Serkin, piano four-hands

Emanuel Ax, “curator” of the eight Schubert concerts that will span the Tanglewood summer, put himself in the role of a genial and supportive host for the first offering of the series. The performance felt like a gathering of an extremely talented group of family and party guests on the stage of Ozawa Hall. His own contributions before intermission were to provide modest backgrounds for works that featured singers and instrumentalists, those being the two large-scale scenas “Dir Hirt auf dem Felsen” and “Auf dem Strom” featuring BSO soloists on clarinet (William Hudgins) and horn (James Sommerville) respectively, alongside Tanglewood Music Center student vocalists Alexandra Smither and Christopher Reames. This was followed by two very charming part-songs, one with soloist and male chorus (“Serenade”) and one for mixed chorus. After intermission, the scene changed to a piano four-hands (duet) recital of some of Schubert’s most significant works for that medium, performed by the duo of Anna Polonsky and Peter Serkin.

It was an evening of music designed to be played at home, at larger or smaller social gatherings of a private character—in other words, for a Schubertiade. The fact that it was presented in Ozawa Hall to an avid sold-out house cut two ways: it seemed slightly incongruous for the very good-natured communications among the musicians to be overheard by a large-scale concert audience, and on the other hand the audience was drawn in to the intimacy and informality of the music itself, giving it the role, momentarily, of party guests. Even the imperfections of the performances contributed to the effect of home music-making. The soloists in the scenas were both TMC vocal students; Alexandra Smither was bright and charming but sang at times ever-so-slightly below pitch, and her vocal runs did not evenly match the perfection of Hudgin’s parallel passages on clarinet. Christopher Reames has an attractive light tenor but the dark power of Sommerville’s horn tended to overshadow it. Kelly Newberry, the mezzo-soprano soloist in the “Serenade” was rich-toned and vibrant, and she provided looks and gestures toward her back-up men that provided touches of amateur theatrics that we would expect at a Schubertiade. All the choral singers were superb, fully engaged in projecting these entertaining but hardly profound works.

The team of Polonsky and Serkin was a bit of a mis-match. If only for optical reasons, Polonsky, who is half Serkin’s size, sat in the Primo position (closer to the audience). Had it been reversed, she would have been invisible to those out front. That put her on the weaker-sounding high end of the piano keyboard. Polonsky has been familiar as a mainstay of the Bard Music Festivals, a fiercely concentrated performer who rarely smiles during applause and whose intensity is often expressed through infinite gradations of quiet dynamics. Serkin possesses a huge dynamic range, and commanded the section of the keyboard that put this maximally at his disposal. They performed three sizeable works; the first, which may have been intended as the opening movement for a large-scale sonata, has been nicknamed “Lebenstürme” (Life’s Storms) and lives up to that label with minor-key outbursts, jarring shifts of harmony, and contrasting lyric episodes. Here, the players seemed mis-matched, with two distinct personalities emerging from the one instrument. Serkin’s powerful touch and broad response to the contrasts in the music overwhelmed Polonsky’s more nuanced approach, and rather than a seamless blend of sound, a chaotic jumble was sometimes the result. By the time the performers reached the last piece, the lyrical Rondo in A, a work of “heavenly length” (to use Schumann’s descriptive phrase about Schubert’s instrumental music), they had negotiated a unified sound that permitted Polonsky’s quiet touch to transport the audience into those ethereal realms to which Schubert’s music so often aspires. In between, they sorted things out with the “Andantino varié,” a vaguely Slavic-sounding theme with four full-length variations that grew successively more imaginative and more warmly-rendered.

As is often the case with parties, the audience was very well-disposed toward the other guests from start to finish, thanks to the quiet presence of a most genial and well-respected host. In taking a background role, Ax directed attention consistently to his colleagues. In an added touch of familial relations, Peter Serkin assumed the role of Ax’s page-turner in the first half of the concert. While being supportive of his fellow performers, Ax’s strongest advocacy was for the composer himself: aside from the opening number (which must be counted among Schubert’s greatest hits) the music was not likely to be familiar to much of the audience. By presenting it on such an exposed platform, Ax seemed to be saying: ‘you see, there is so much more great music here than you might suspect.’ There are seven more Schubert evenings to go this summer—many wonderful surprises can be anticipated.

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