Emanuel Ax keeps an open mind when it comes to programming.

“I guess you could do almost anything with a recital program,” the renowned American pianist said. “You could do one-composer programs. You could do chronological programs. You could do programs that feature contrasts. You could do programs that feature continuity. All of that’s possible.”

Whatever approach he takes, Ax, 68, tries to devise a program that will interest everybody. To that end, he probably wouldn’t play, say, the last three Schubert sonatas.

Yo-Yo Ma (right) straightens the tie worn by Emanuel Ax, as Leonidas Kavakos looks on, before the three take the stage for their SCP Chamber Music recital Feb. 25. | ©Todd Rosenberg 2018

“As fabulous as that music is, I don’t really think of that as a recital program,” he said. “I think of it three magnificent works that happen to be played next to each other. I think there are very few composers who can you do one-composer programs of. I think Beethoven is one and Chopin is another. I do think it’s nice to have either variety or continuity that not’s simply putting masterpieces together and playing them.”

With all that in mind, Ax has assembled a program of works by four of classical music’s most-recognized composers for a matinee recital April 8 as part of the SCP Piano Series. He first presented this latest lineup in January, and he is performing it again as part of a four-city recital tour that begins April 3 in Sarasota, Fla., and concludes April 10 in New York’s Carnegie Hall. “So I’m trying to get better as I go,” the pianist said with a laugh.

Few performers appear more frequently at Orchestra Hall than Ax, who soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two sets of concerts in 2016. He last appeared here Feb. 25 for a sold-out performance of Brahms’ piano trios with celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Leonidas Kavakos.

“I’ve been very fortunate in visiting Chicago,” he said. “I love Chicago. Obviously, I love Orchestra Hall, and I love the symphony. So it’s an incredible privilege to always come back. I have good friends there now, and it’s really wonderful. I’m a lucky guy.”

Driving Ax’s April 8 program was a desire to perform a few works he has never played before, starting with Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, K. 533 (with Rondo, K. 494) and J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829. “I really wanted to play some Bach, because I’ve been desperately scared of playing Bach, and I thought it’s time before I really am too old,” he said. In between, he wanted a work by an Austro-Germanic composer who wasn’t Bach or Mozart, so he chose Liszt’s Three Sonnets of Petrarch, a piano transcription of an 1846 set of song settings.

Yo-Yo Ma (from left), Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos take a bow after their Brahms trio recital Feb. 25. | ©Todd Rosenberg 2018

Ax likes to conclude his programs with a piece that ends with a bang, and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53, Waldstein, does just that. “So I thought that would be nice to do,” he said. He precedes that popular selection with Beethoven’s Andante favori in F major, which was the original second movement for the Waldstein Sonata. Beethoven substituted it with a section titled Introduzione (Introduction). The pianist believes the composer’s switch made sense, but he calls the Andante a “lovely, lovely piece” that stands up quite well on its own.

“Recitals are always very difficult,” Ax said. “The first half of this program — in fact, the first half and the Andante favori — are new pieces for me, so it’s exciting and scary. These are all hard pieces. It’s a lot to pack into an evening.”

What is not included on the program are any 20th- or 21st-century works. The reason is simple. He has done many such works the last few years, including pieces by Samuel Adams, Brett Dean and Missy Mazzoli. “I thought it would be fun do a program that doesn’t have any contemporary stuff in it,” he said with a chuckle. “I guess I should feel slightly guilty about it, but it’s only one recital, and I’m sure next year, I’ll find something new to play.”

While he might be doing any new pieces, Ax points out that this program does include rarely performed works, including the Mozart sonata. “I don’t know anyone I’ve talked to who has actually heard it in recital,” he said. “So at least there is that.” In addition, he said, one of Three Sonnets of Petrarch is well known but the other two are not programmed frequently.

“The piano repertoire is so big,” he said. “There are many masterpieces by great, great composers that simply aren’t played very often. The Mozart, the Liszt and in a way, the Bach G Major Partita are not pieces you hear all the time.”

Note: There will a post-concert reception in Grainger Ballroom for SCP Piano Series subscribers.

TOP: Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco/Opus3