It’s good to welcome a new recording by Emanuel Ax, especially when it is as impressive as this one. Ax holds the opening chord of the ‘Eroica’ Variations for as long as possible before introducing a Theme that would become familiar in Beethoven’s promethean ballet score (Opus 43) and Heroic Symphony (Opus 55). Initially Ax is gently teasing, then uproarious; this is music that is exploratory and joyful, flippant and profound. Ax has its measure, musicianship and technique hand-in-hand (as it were) and the Fugue is a triumphant conclusion. Ax's version of the 'Eroica' Variations is on a par with those great ones by Annie Fischer and Emil Gilels.
Centrally placed is Haydn’s F minor Variations, highly serious music that searches all avenues before a great moment of emotional overspill. Ax gives a contented and seamless account, wonderfully passionate where it matters and with some deliciously even and expressive runs.
Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques is very nearly given complete: iAx includes two Variations that Schumann omitted from the published score of 1837 but plays only three of the five so-called ‘posthumous’ Studies that Brahms offered as an option in his edition. This is one of the masterworks of the piano literature. Ax gives it a richly romantic reading, also a lucid and vividly characterised one – rapt and tender in ‘Variation 5’, rhythmically chiselled in ‘Etude 6’ and its successor, and dashing in the final section, for example – and which is wholly engaging and rewarding. The piano sound throughout is uncompromisingly realistic: close and dry if somewhat aggressive and treble-fierce, but you won’t miss a note and Ax’s artistry is superb and compelling. This Variations release stands high in the pantheon of notable piano recordings.