Friday, May 18, 2012

The invariable Emmanuel Ax

The man himself.

There's just something comforting about Emmanel Ax (above); he is invariably modest in demeanor, but brilliant in accomplishment (a combination that is becoming rare indeed, and not just in the concert hall).  There's very little prickliness to his persona, either - he seems blissfully non-neurotic and demon-free.  His relationship with the audience is perhaps slightly diffident - he's a little shy - but it's also quietly, unassumingly inviting.  He is on stage to deliver on a legacy he reveres; we're there to appreciate it, and that's all.  But isn't that enough?

Well, it seemed like more than enough last Friday, when he kept a nearly sold-out Jordan Hall enraptured throughout his Celebrity Series appearance.  The program was Herculean, among the most technically challenging piano programs I've heard in years - indeed, as a feat of muscle memory it was almost unbelievable, and yet it never played as a mere display of technical prowess; instead, it functioned as a kind of essay on (or even tour of) the changing meanings of technique across several musical eras.

Ax hopped around between those eras, however, opening with Aaron Copland's notorious Piano Variations from 1930 (which Leonard Bernstein sometimes joked were all you needed to empty out a room).  In their harshly chiming, Here-Come-the-Modernists! astringency, these sound a bit dated now, I think; Nadia Boulanger's fingerprints are all over them, and their severe, self-flattering heroism has begun to ring a bit hollow (part of the problem is that even though they're variations, they don't vary much).  I admit they're of historical importance, and Ax played them with just the right level of cool, percussive attack, but in the end I'm glad Copland left this stuff in the dust.

At this point, as if to underline the fact that he's able to play anything in its appropriate style, Ax leapt back in time over a century to Haydn's Andante with Variations in F Minor.  Here Ax's touch magically became late-classical; poised, but with more pleasing elegance, and a touch of mournfulness, but only a touch - although some claim the work's coda is an unspoken elegy to Mozart, Ax kept the tears in check.

Indeed, if there was a criticism to be made of the program, it might be that the potential emotional development of works like Haydn's simply wasn't Ax's focus; he was more interested in these pieces as eloquent explorations of the possibilities of "variation" per se (each "varied" differently).  Thus he was at his most impressive in the next two challenges, Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in E-Flat Major (the "Eroica Variations") and Schumann's titanic Études en forme de variations, Op. 13 (widely known as the"Symphonic Études").

The Eroica Variations intrigue because they expand the idea of lateral variation to the nth degree while hardly varying harmonically - and Ax threw himself into the contrapuntal complexity of it all with obvious brio (the concluding fugue was particularly thrilling).  But perhaps Schumann's Études were even better.  There were a few missed notes here and there, I suppose, but  then this is a virtual mountain range for the keyboard.  Yes, it's called "symphonic" for a reason; several of the variations explicitly mimic different forms of orchestral color, and Ax seemed to capture them all.  And he built thrillingly to the commanding finish, in which Schumann pushes his central "love" theme (borrowed from the father of a girl he was briefly interested in) to a level of elaborate grandeur perhaps never bested on any other single instrument.

This performance brought the crowd to its feet, but Ax still had energy left for two quick encores, from Liszt and Chopin; these were plusher and more intimately lyrical than anything that had come before - a perfectly contrasting aperitif to what had been a sumptuous musical banquet.

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