Thank you for just a normal piano playing...
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 18 in F, K. 533/494
Franz Liszt: Années de pèlerinage. Deuxième année: Italie: Tre Sonetti del Petrarca
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Partita No. 5, BWV 829
Ludwig van Beethoven: Andante in F major, WoO 57 – Piano Sonata No. 21 “Waldstein”, opus 53
Emanuel Ax (piano)
E. Ax (© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
Emanuel Ax, the ever-amiable pianist – one may say New York audiences beloved son – is a rather ubiquitous presence on the stages of this city where he has been residing since his early teens ( he was born in Lvov, later schooled in Warsaw, Poland and arrived to the States almost six decades ago). He performs here each season as a soloist with the orchestras and for the last three years he has been also presented by the Carnegie Hall in solo recitals. It seems to me that approaching 70 in just one year, Mr. Ax is going from strength to strength and to this day shows remarkable pianistic skills combined with his well-recognizable and distinguished musicality. This time he strayed from his customary presentation of a new/recently written-just-for-him work – a fact that separates him from many of his peers, who at this point of their own careers no longer consider necessary to learn a recently written music – and remained on the familiar grounds of Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt. A relative novelty in the program was an inclusion of Bach Partita: Mr. Ax in his long career has not performed many of Bach’s keyboard works, and his last recital proved to many of us, that he was unnecessarily too cautious, and perhaps too intimidated by such musicians as Sir András Schiff and that ultimately he should have played more works of that composer. Judging from what we have heard and seeing how well he manages that particular keyboard technique, we may surmise that it is not too late.
Mr. Ax started his recital from a Mozart sonata and wisely he chose one that is a relatively less frequently played and yet much more inventive than the traditional four or five we often hear. This sonata combines a stylistic union of Baroque scholarship with Classical grace, together producing a blend of attraction and intellectual delight. I was wondering if it was a conscious decision on Mr. Ax part to brace the program with the two works which originally were written not in a manner we hear them nowadays. The Mozart Sonata in F Major started is existence in 1786 as a separately published Rondo in F (K. 494), to which Mozart later added the opening Allegro and middle Andante movements (K. 533), thus the double Köchel number. Similarly, the original middle movement of the mighty “Waldstein” Sonata, a lengthy Andante in F Major, was later substituted by a much more concise Introduzione that ties the two large outer movements of this virtuoso work.
Mozart Sonata starts from a jaunty two-measure theme in the right hand, which initially seems to imply that we are going to hear a fugue. That melody is soon assisted by a rather ordinary accompaniment of the left hand but when a little later we hear the theme in the left hand, this time it is assisted by a rich counterpoint and inventiveness of texture unmatched by any of his other keyboard works. That is assisted by a sparkling of brilliant triples which roll through the movement creating also one of the more demanding pianistic textures. The sense of an intense chromaticism is ever present in the Andante with harmonies of rending poignancy and breathtaking daring melodies. In the finale we encounter, among a further polyphonic development, also a little quasi-cadenza in which there is an excursion into the lower regions of the piano range, that on today’s concert grand pianos sound almost too sepulchral. If one were to choose the most profound example of Mozart sonatas for any instrument, this one would probably obtain a nod.
Mr. Ax has been known as a superb interpreter of Mozart piano concertos and all his distinctive virtues were present in his interpretation of the sonata. There was always a lovely singing sound, graceful touch, clear and nuanced articulation, meticulous approach to phrasing and a little Romantic feeling so welcomed in that music made his interpretation a very impressive one and a joy to listen.
Whereas in the past seasons the works of Beethoven and/or Liszt were not that rare in Mr. Ax’s repertory, his avoidance of Bach’s keyboard music was evident. That should no longer be the case. His Bach playing was stylish, with an imaginative ornamentation and embellishments and astoundingly played without the use of sustaining pedal, which is a manner that only a few players adhere to: I guess that alone would please that great Bach master, previously mentioned. The Partita No. 5 is perhaps the shortest but is features some of the most inventive writing such as in the Tempo di Menuetta (unknown why he’d change the gender of the dance: forward thinking composer, perhaps?) full of cross-rhythms and sounding as if a preparatory exercise for some of the later “Goldberg” Variations. The mastery incredible of the creator – and at the same time a cruelty to performer – shows in the final polyphonic Gigue most energetic and quirky, which with the double bar turns the subject upside down and makes it even more demanding for the player. Mr. Ax braved with aplomb all this technical problems and offered a very fine version, at least as convincing as a recent one by Ms. Hewitt, who is widely, and sometimes inexplicably, considered a Bach “specialist”.
The Bach was preceded by Tre sonetti del Petrarca from the Années de pélerinage. Those three elaborate works are rewritten songs, which were first published for tenor and piano and then given an opulent new garment as solo-piano pieces. Though there’s aplenty of virtuosity in those three settings of Petrarch Sonnets, they are more of a spiritual nature and the subject of the poetry is ardor and love, no peace in love, ecstasy over feminine virtues. In Mr. Ax interpretation we heard a remarkable sense of narration and an expert imitating of arduous vocal line. Though our pianist is generally known for his infallible good taste and restrain, here in Liszt’s passionate word he was able to deliver most emotional feelings. I reached in my memory to the last equally impressive performance of the Three Sonnets and frankly came empty handed: it was indeed one of the most personal and memorable Liszt playing, at least of these Three Sonnets.
The second half of the recital was devoted solely to Beethoven: the main course, that being the “Waldstein” Sonata, was prefaced a shorter work, Andante in F Major, which, as I already mentioned, originally constitutes sonata’s middle movement. The same qualities that were described earlier were present in another very elegant, well thought-out, intelligent and brilliantly played Beethoven virtuoso pieces. Andante received a deserved lovely treatment for it is one of the most charming pieces peeking into soon-to-come Romanticism but staying within the classical confines of Minuetto-feeling and rondo form. Toward the end there are some notable moments Beethoven teases his listener with ambiguous harmony shifts momentarily to G flat only to come back, as if with a mischievous smile, back to F Major.
The outer movements received a spirited, virtuoso, and very well controlled readings akin to that of some past masters such as Rudolf Serkin or Alfred Brendel, who in that repertory were models for us all. That was an authoritative, deeply planned, conscious and superbly executed playing with a just proportion of feverish intensity, virtuosity and sense of emotion and feeling that well corresponded with a description of Beethoven’s own playing. In the finale marked Allegretto, our pianist carefully adhered to the controversial pedal marking, which ask performer to hold on the sustaining pedal for a several measure, and even though it is a bit unwieldy on a modern piano, Ax somehow made it work. He also made a judicious transition of tempo in coda – here composer asks performer for the tempo Prestissimo (as fast as possible) – and Mr. Ax did it in a masterly way without making the fast notes disappearing into a blur. He opted as well for one notorious place in the coda, that every pianist knows as “the octaves”, to be played as the composer demanded as glissando and executed it flawlessly.
There were two short encores: Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp Major (opus 15 No. 2)> and Liszt’s Valse oubliée No. 1: both works came somewhat truncated. Let me explain: it is a well-known fact that the members of the audience who occupy the seats in the orchestra section of Carnegie Hall hear not only a warm, resonant, pleasant sound but also have an ample opportunity to see the patrons scurrying to the exit without a slightest regards for the fact that the soloists are still on stage and attempt to please their audience with encores. Alas, for those who want to hear the music, it is a daunting task and invariably the first half a minute of any encore is masked by the noise of walkers, shuffling feet and unabashed talking. I think that calling the New York audiences about the rudest in the nation would still be an understatement and almost a compliment.
Other than those last, jarring moments, Mr. Ax’s recital was a very satisfying experience and allowed all of us to witness a music making that was honest, deeply felt and totally natural. There was – as it usually is in his case – not a moment where the playing would be about Mr. Ax. It was about Beethoven, and Bach and Mozart. One may remember that the launch of Mr. Ax’s career was winning the first Arthur Rubinstein International Competition in Tel-Aviv: it should come as no surprise that nowadays his playing brings back memories of that master.
No small accomplishment.