Chen Yi
Ballade ‘Ji-Dong-Nuo’ [World premiere]
Brahms
Ballades, Op.10
Saariaho
Ballade [World premiere]
Liszt
Ballade No.2 in B minor
Chopin
The Four Ballades – in G minor, Op.23; in F, Op.38; in A flat, Op.47; in F minor, Op.52

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Chopin coined the term ‘ballade’, a piece of music often linked to literature, the source usually kept silent. Although the ‘form’ was short-lived, Emanuel Ax seems to be inviting composers to revisit such a composition, if only by name: “Why ‘Ballade’? Manny asked specifically for a piece bearing this title…”. The words of Kaija Saariaho. Her title-only Ballade, 6 minutes, is somewhat tortured-sounding, angular, subterranean and clangourous, chord-clusters the order of the day. There was visual entertainment, too, Ax dealing directly with a recalcitrant page of the score and, later, nearly manhandling the whole to the floor! Chen Yi’s 4-minute opener – abounding with oriental inflection and Americanisms (if not at the same time) proved playful, dynamic and whimsical. (Another new Ballade, by Aaron J Kernis, failed to make the final programme.)
But the ‘real’ Ballades came from Brahms and Chopin; Liszt’s sounds rather like an operatic paraphrase with its ‘dramatic’ surging bass and ‘vocal’ right-hand, a glittery sometimes demonic creation given with full power by Ax – magnificent playing as such but with a tendency to over-pedal. Ax’s conception of the Brahms was the recital’s highlight; music that is about ‘something’, the Four Ballades here treated as a continuous piece (although the segue from third to last didn’t quite come off), with Ax being consistently rich-toned and expressive and avoiding the stasis the slower numbers can fall into. Ax’s reading (not from the score!) rippled with sensitivity and agitation, and concluded with shapely and deeply-felt phrasing.
Chopin’s Ballades were not quite as successful, overall. Many passages were meltingly beautiful, and those that can be too punctuated were brought off with disarming simplicity. Occasionally Ax would whip up a storm that seemed to sectionalise such outbursts (and sometimes presenting him with stiff technical challenges only just met). The A flat Ballade was wonderfully done, throughout, and the introspection of the F minor was sensitively searched. For his encore, Ax stayed with Chopin, switched to the waltz, and gave one of the slower numbers, its pathos movingly rendered.

 

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