Emanuel Ax at Barbican Hall

Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat, Op.61
Mazurkas – in E minor, Op.41/1; in C, Op.24/2; in C minor, Op.56/3
Fantasie in C, Op.17
Fantasiestücke, Op.12
Three Mazurkas, Op.27 [UK premiere]
Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante, Op.22

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 5 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Emanuel Ax. ©Sony Music EntertainmentIf this recital by Emanuel Ax were designed as a competition between this year’s illustrious composer-birthday-boys (Fryderyk Chopin and Robert Schumann were both born in 1810), then the Chopin came out ‘on top’. Schumann’s music was here overwrought whereas Chopin’s, whilst in possession of captivating emotional sweep, was also youthful and carefree.

The heart of the recital was the UK premiere of Thomas Adès’s Three Mazurkas; Ax first introduced the pieces at Carnegie Hall on 10 February, the result of a request from the pianist to celebrate Chopin’s bicentenary. Ax captured Adès’s mysterious soundworld, and their sudden endings merely whetted the appetite. The third one, marked grave, espressivo, was a vision of a dystopia, and despite its minimal scoring, was certainly the grander of the three.

Bookending the recital were some of Chopin’s most famous creations. Ax produced at once a compulsive and seductive Polonaise-Fantasie, and he navigated its chirpy then full-bodied range in miraculous fashion, culminating in meaningful sentimentality. It is a late work of Chopin’s, and its breadth served as an ideal opener. Next were three Mazurkas, with Ax bringing out the first’s darkness, and the second’s charming, youthful abandon. The third, symphonic in range, showcased Chopin’s prodigious talent at creating substantial miniatures.

Straddling the interval were two substantial works from Schumann, Ax seemed unsettled as to how to approach them. Chopin’s succinct creations against Schumann’s meandering lost Ax. Emotional content was drained by the many restatements and restarts, particularly in the Fantasie; the finale fared best, its “night without stars” compelling.

The other Schumann was Fantasiestücke, two-sided music that weaves a passionate personality with a poetic one, and Ax communicated these polar-opposites. Each movement fared well, and the purple statements of the last (‘Ende vom Lied’) dissolved wonderfully into the introspective close, the mixing of character ideally realised.

In the final item, Grand Polonaise, the opening Andante spianto (added later by Chopin) found Ax at his most playful, full of charm and sophisticated wit, whereas the Polonaise brilliante was bold, vigorous and full of barnstorming virtuosity. The single encore was Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, from Opus 34, its profound, brooding outer themes utterly hypnotic.

  • Emanuel Ax & Dawn Upshaw at Barbican Hall on Friday 12 March at 7.30 p.m.
  • Barbican

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