Monday, January 19, 2015

An Afternoon with Emmanuel Ax

It had been many years since I heard Emmanuel Ax perform, so it was with great anticipation that I attended his solo recital yesterday at Vancouver’s only good full-size concert hall, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

The programme, a French-based programme of Bizet, Rameau, Debussy and Chopin (one mustn’t forget that Chopin spent his adult life in Paris, and that his father was French), really showed Ax’s capacity for growth as a musician and artist, and his refusal to be “type-casted”. It was truly a lovely afternoon of wonderful music making by a great musician.

I only knew of Georges Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques de Concert through a recording by Glenn Gould - coupled at the time with Grieg’s E Minor Sonata. In Gould’s own words, this set of variations is, “one of the very few masterpieces for solo piano to emerge from the third quarter of the nineteenth century; its almost total neglect is a phenomenon for which I can offer no reasonable explanation.”

I was grateful to Ax for including this work in his recital. To my ears, Bizet’s Variations is very much a child of its time, with hints of influence by Chopin, Schumann (very much so), and Liszt. As I listened to it, it reminded me of another unjustly neglected work, Grieg’s Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song, Op. 24, a piece structurally and stylistically very much in the same vein as the Bizet. I do not know whether this is a new work for Ax, but it sounded just ever so slightly less assured as the rest of his programme. Nevertheless, we should be grateful to the artist for introducing us to this lovely work.

I was also unfamiliar to the next item on Ax’s programme, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in G Major/Minor from Nouvelles Pièces de clavecin. Much of the writing for the keyboard is reminiscent of the Sonatas of Scarlatti. Ax’s playing was beautiful, and totally musical, with all the grace and lightness the music calls for. His playing certainly makes a strong case for playing music conceived for the harpsichord on the piano – not that a case ever needed to be made.

With the rest of the recital programme, the audience is on very familiar territory. Ax gave us incredibly lovely playing in his performances of Debussy’s Estampes, Hommage à Rameau, and the finger-breaking L’Isle Joyeuse – “Happy Island”, as a teacher of mine used to facetiously call it. It is perhaps no accident that Ax attended Columbia University in his youth and majored in French, for he obviously has an affinity for the music. The sound he conjured from the piano was magical, with pianissimos as gorgeous as Gieseking, but with a greater range of tone and colour than the legendary German pianist.

I could think of no greater technical and musical challenge than to negotiate all four of Chopin’s Scherzi, which was what Ax did after the interval. Vladimir Horowitz said that to successfully play Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1, the pianist needed to have both demonic and angelic qualities. Ax does not need to apologize for lacking in any of these qualities, and he certainly rose to the occasion in his technically impregnable performance of the first Scherzo. What stayed in my ears long after the concert, though, was the beauty he conjured from the piano in the middle section, taken from the Polish Christmas carol Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, Little Jesus). The second and fourth Scherzi received similarly convincing interpretations.

To my ears, Ax’s interpretation of the Scherzo No. 2 was more convincing than Perahia’s last year. I thought that his playing of the Scherzo No. 4, the most difficult one technically, was simply breathtaking. I had only a slight quibble with the tempo he took in the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor. To me, the quick tempo he adopted actually takes away some of the tension, and the tempestuous quality of the music.

Upon the urging of the audience, Ax ended his performance in Vancouver quietly, with Robert Schumann’s Des Abends, from his Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. It was a completely satisfying afternoon of great playing of great music.

We await Mr. Ax’s next return to Vancouver, when he will, to be sure, share the joys of his musical discoveries with us.

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