When Mme. Mao banned Schubert's music from Chinese concert halls a generation ago, she called it "bourgeois." What she meant, rather, was that an outpouring of melodies so fresh, honest, and beguiling would certainly erode the most revolutionary spirit.
Mme. Mao is dead and Schubert isn't.
That was clear Wednesday when pianist Emanuel Ax played two sonatas and four impromptus (D. 935) in his recital at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. His playing made honesty and clarity virtues of the highest order, for he seemed to have simply tapped the source and allowed it to flow.
Technical imperialism? Dramatic insight? Neither of those issues was raised by his playing. The sound, from the most understated whisper to the stentorian, widened the spectrum of color in the melodies. The technique? Finely molded to the long arc of phrases, to the shy glimpses of referential melodic fragments, to the flow of ideas.
Ax reminded his listeners that Schubert did not develop ideas in the complex, sometimes gnarled way of his contemporaries, but rather found that returning to the melody or part of it revealed ever new beauties. But his playing was also a reminder that however discursive the music may seem, its logic is bound with steel. The last cadence of each work seemed to say "There! You see?"
Contemporaries said Schubert played these big works at home for a few friends, and Ax re-created that feeling of intimacy and ease. He urged some inner details here and there, argued for the sublimity of the broad line, but always suggested that the playing was not meant as a concert event, but as a lively conversation with friends.
Listeners could take home the delicacy of the crossing hands displayed in the Impromptu No. 3, the effortless flow of the Impromptu No. 1, the elaboration of the first idea in the youthful Sonata in A (D. 664), and the unshakable sense of proportion from the whole of the Sonata in B flat (D. 960).
Ax had chosen his program with great care, for the inner references and variations were placed and stressed to explain so much without turning didactic or argumentative. He did not play an encore, but after a few bows, the lights were turned up. That, actually, was what Ax had been doing all evening.