Emanuel Ax: predictability is a good thing

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Ricordanza
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Emanuel Ax: predictability is a good thing

Post by Ricordanza » Fri Mar 22, 2019 11:59 am

In most cases, it’s not a good thing to say that a performer is predictable. It usually means that a performer does essentially the same thing at each concert; we know what to expect, and the result is boredom.

Emanuel Ax is anything but boring. Tuesday evening, March 19th, marked the fifth time that I’ve heard this renowned pianist in recital and, as predicted, the audience was treated to an evening of great music making.

Ax began the evening with two familiar but welcome works: the two Brahms Rhapsodies, Op. 79. These are works characterized by passionate expression and dramatic shifts. Ax captured that passion and applied just the right amount of hesitation to emphasize those dramatic shifts. These pieces are also prime examples of what I will call Brahms’ expansion of the keyboard. Prior composers generally kept to the middle of the keyboard. A few high notes, a few low notes, but Brahms takes this a step further with the right and left hands often far apart. This creates a different texture which is instantly recognizable and distinct.

I must add that these two pieces are especially familiar to me, having performed them in a group recital many, many years ago.

Another predictable element of an Emanuel Ax recital is that he often adds something new and different to the program. On Tuesday evening, the unfamiliar music was a set of 12 pieces by the contemporary British composer, George Benjamin, entitled Piano Figures. Before playing these pieces, Ax addressed the audience. I thought we were going to receive a brief lecture about the work, as the pianist Jeremy Denk does so often. Instead, Ax simply provided a little humor: “This is a set of 12 short pieces. They are less than a minute each, so if you don’t like one, you don’t have to wait long for the next one.” With that, he sat down and played these highly atmospheric miniatures.

Next, it was a return to the 19th Century for Fantasiestűcke, Op. 12, a set of eight pieces by Robert Schumann. Compared to Carnaval and Kreisleriana, this set is heard less frequently in recital, but deserves to be heard more. For this audience member, this was the highlight of the recital. Ax’s performance was emotionally charged but never out of control. Particularly impressive, both for the music and the performance, were the sections Aufschwung (“Soaring”), In der Nacht (“In the Night”) and Traumes Wirren (“Dream Visions”).

After intermission, we jumped forward about 74 years to hear Maurice Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. This is also a set of eight pieces, but each one, as the title implies, is a waltz. Hearing this performance was a reminder of why Ravel is considered one of the greatest composers for the piano. Ravel was a great orchestrator, and his orchestral version of this work is popular and enjoyable. But I still have a special feeling for the original piano version, especially when performed with the flow and articulation we heard by Ax.

The program concluded with a wonderful Chopin set: the late Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1, a work of greater complexity and depth than the earlier pieces in this genre; the three Mazurkas from Op. 50, the rhythmic Polish dances; and finally, the early work that Chopin performed as a virtuoso showpiece, Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Op. 22. Ax performed the Andante at a rather brisk pace, but it didn’t seemed rushed. The concluding Polonaise was appropriately brilliant.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation, Ax rewarded us with two superb Chopin encores, the Nocturne in F Sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2 (the same encore he played at his 2017 Philadelphia recital), and the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1.

Two years ago, here’s the way I described the pianism of Emanuel Ax. I see no reason to change what I said, so I’ll just repeat it here: “Individual, well thought out, expressive, technically pristine, but never overcooked or self-indulgent.”

Rach3
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Re: Emanuel Ax: predictability is a good thing

Post by Rach3 » Fri Mar 22, 2019 12:11 pm

Thanks for this review and your comments about Brahms' piano writing. The features of his writing you mention ( among others ) makes his music a real test for pianists, harder to play than it sounds. At least hard for me ! I have nowhere near your facility, Op.117,#1 , Op.118,# 2, a couple Op.39 Waltzes, more than enough for me to attempt , and I would never play them publically.

Belle
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Re: Emanuel Ax: predictability is a good thing

Post by Belle » Sun Mar 24, 2019 12:40 pm

Emanuel Ax is one musician and human being I consistently admire. He is self-effacing, erudite and thoughtful. I do remember an interview from 2 decades ago when he was in Australia and went onto our national FM network; there he argued that Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 was largely 'an extended cadenza'!! That really got me thinking, I can tell you. :D

John F
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Re: Emanuel Ax: predictability is a good thing

Post by John F » Sun Mar 24, 2019 1:34 pm

Rach3 wrote:
Fri Mar 22, 2019 12:11 pm
Thanks for this review and your comments about Brahms' piano writing. The features of his writing you mention ( among others ) makes his music a real test for pianists, harder to play than it sounds. At least hard for me ! I have nowhere near your facility, Op.117,#1 , Op.118,# 2, a couple Op.39 Waltzes, more than enough for me to attempt , and I would never play them publically.
In "The Romantic Generation," Charles Rosen writes at some lengh about this feature of Brahms's piano writing. Interesting reading.
John Francis

Ricordanza
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Joined: Sun Jun 26, 2005 4:58 am
Location: Southern New Jersey, USA

Re: Emanuel Ax: predictability is a good thing

Post by Ricordanza » Mon Mar 25, 2019 6:23 am

John F wrote:
Sun Mar 24, 2019 1:34 pm

In "The Romantic Generation," Charles Rosen writes at some lengh about this feature of Brahms's piano writing. Interesting reading.
Just added to my "To Read" list. Thanks.

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