Emanuel Ax – In Camera & Recital (15/18 June)

15 June

Duo in B flat for violin and viola, K.424
Trio in E flat for clarinet, viola and piano, K 498 (Kegelstatt)
Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44

Emanuel Ax (piano)
LSO Chamber Ensemble:
Gordan Nikolitch (violin)
Evgeny Grach (violin)
Edward Vanderspar (viola)
Moray Welsh (cello)
Andrew Marriner (clarinet)

18 June

Six Variations on an Original Theme, Op.34
Eroica Variations, Op.35
Polonaise-fantaisie, Op.61
Three Mazurkas [from Opp.24, 56 & 59]
Andante spianato and Grand polonaise, Op.22

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 18 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This pair of concerts formed chamber music and recital pendants to the London Symphony Orchestra’s concurrent series of concerts with Emanuel Ax and André Previn.

To start with Ax’s recital. On paper this seemed intelligent programme building, the first half comprising two sets of Beethoven variations separated by Leonard Bernstein’s Touches – an intriguing, very clever test-piece exploring touch in many guises, played with obvious affection by Ax – the second, two Polonaises parted by Mazurkas, each half effectively a music-palindrome. In practice, it worked slightly less well because the first two thirds of the programme was highly distinguished, the Mazurkas and Andante spianato less so.

Ax is a natural Beethoven stylist, if occasionally over-forceful. The Op.34 Variations op 34 made an interesting juxtaposition with the more famous Eroica set (using the familiar tune from the Eroica Symphony’s Finale, and composed earlier). Whereas the Op.35 variations are conceived on the grandest scale, the theme subjected to a comprehensive workout, that of Op.34 is treated more as a link through a series of differentiated and discursive mood-pictures, ’quasi una fantasia’, the world of Schubert not far away. Both sets represent a significant extension of Beethoven’s piano style and peer over the fence, as it were, to the late sonatas. In the Eroica set, Ax’s playing was formidably assured, whilst his exploration of the work’s introspective core and its final fugue took us straight to the heart of the matter – magisterial Beethoven playing.

The Chopin half opened propitiously with a remarkably fine performance of the ambitious Polonaise-fantaisie, in which Chopin seems to be reaching out to the symphonic poems of Liszt; indeed hearing it played with this level of virtuosity, elegance and contemplation, one would now like to hear Ax in Liszt’s searching music from his final years.

In the three Mazurkas, Ax seemed to gild the lily and his response was over-sophisticated, part of the problem being his trying to make too much of music, which while undoubtedly subtle, does bear this kind of weight; the other being a tendency to over-pedal and muddy rhythms. The Andante spianato and Grand polonaise op 22, a display piece, seemed a misjudgement as the final item – it was the least interesting piece of the recital and sounded threadbare by comparison. Ax’s playing lacked the crisp under-pedalled glitter which would have made the best case for the piece, certainly fluent but under-characterised. Chopin’s Berceuse encored the evening to a peaceful close.

A few days earlier, teaming up with LSO section leaders, Ax was stylistically on home ground for Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio. We were treated to some deliciously liquid playing by Andrew Marriner, although there was rather less personality in evidence from Edward Vanderspar. Perfect music for a summer evening, so too the Duo that preceded it.

This concert closed with a resounding performance of Schumann’s evergreen Piano Quintet, Ax primus inter pares, the string-players beautifully balanced and integrated if perhaps a little low on solo assertiveness. This is music that sounds amazingly well in a large hall, especially with Ax’s power and authority. Speeds were crisp – a little too much so in the broken musings of the second movement for the music’s oddity to emerge fully – and exuberant and life-enhancing in the Scherzo and Finale, which rightly drew an appreciative ovation.

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