Emanuel Ax brought his customary warmth, eloquence and effortless pianism to this wide-ranging but well-integrated Carnegie Hall recital. For openers, Brahms’s Two Rhapsodies, Opus 79 – the first played with impressive immediacy, the second marked by a befitting grandeur – Ax drawing out all the music’s elegance and power. George Benjamin’s brief (about one-minute each) and deceptively simple Piano Figures came next. Playing the ten sketches from score, Ax delivered a captivating account of this mercurial music – sometimes rambunctious, sometimes song-like, but always picturesque.
Like the Benjamin, Schumann’s Opus 12 Fantasy Pieces is a set of characterful and highly contrasting essays that sidesteps conventional musical forms and genres. Centering on two characters representing the differing sides of the composer’s personality – the wistful Eusebius and the passionate Florestan – the cycle mixes and matches their idiosyncrasies in a variety of contexts. Ax’s performance of these splendid creations was as powerful as it was poetic. For examples, ‘Des Abends’ (In the evening) was secretive, ‘Aufschwung’ (Uplift) vibrantly energetic, ‘Warum?’ (Why?) gently quizzical, and ‘Fabel’ (Fable) positively glittering.
Following intermission came a magical account of Ravel’s languorous Valses nobles and sentimentales, Ax displaying impeccable technique, exemplary taste and notable sophistication of touch, an apt entrée to the passionate expressivity of Chopin. The Nocturne was appropriately dreamy, and the last of the three Opus 50 Mazurkas had a wonderful rhythmic lilt. A sparkling account of the Andante spianato and a glorious Grande Polonaise rounded out a program with an emphasis on articulacy and understated virtuosity.
For encores, more Chopin: a faraway F-sharp Nocturne, Opus 15/2, and a dazzling Waltz in A-flat, Opus 34/1.