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Familiarity Breeds Contentment

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/27/2016 -  & March 22 (Fort Lauderdale), 24 (Blacksburg), April 5 (San Antonio), 9 (Thomasville), 10 (Gainesville), 24 (Schenectady), 25 (Princeton), May 1st (Boston), 2016
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”, No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1, No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata” – Six Variations on an Original Theme in F Major, Op. 34 – Polonaise in C Major, Op. 89
Emanuel Ax (piano)

E. Ax (© Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

“...the crowds of crickets who have devastated the adagio until the present day were not able to destroy its calm grandeur.”
W. de Lenz on the “Pathétique” Sonata, 1855

I like to think that modern music began right on schedule in 1800 when Beethoven composed the cadenza for the first movement of his C minor Piano Concerto. Certainly the works that followed in the first decade of the nineteenth century were the most revolutionary ever conceived and forged an impression of homogeneity that encouraged further exploration. On Wednesday evening at Carnegie Hall, we were treated to an entire evening of forward-looking gems.

Manny Ax has been with us in New York since the 1960’s and we never tire of him. Not just the pairings with longtime partner Yo-Yo Ma (they still hold the record for the duo with the shortest surnames) but as a profound and inclusive soloist of the highest order. Reaching back to his (and our) roots in Beethoven was a sentimental journey for us all.

At the time of the composition of Opus 13, Beethoven was very much still a Classicist and maintained strict rhythmic balance in the opening theme of the middle movement by filling the left hand with steady pacing so as to keep the right hand from wandering into the realm of rubato. If one thinks of popular reinterpretations of the famous “Pathétique” melody, for example in “easy listening” drivel, there is no corresponding metronomic force to guide the theme. Beethoven would have none of this rhapsodizing, particularly since he was still writing with the fortepiano in at least equal mind with the pianoforte. Ax pulled off the necromancer’s trick of seeming to present the theme in the right hand in an elastic manner while still keeping the left hand steadily on course: Beethoven as both will and idea.

After a deliberate beginning Ax launched a competent reading that was perhaps blown off course by intrusive audience applause, a scourge that would haunt this performance throughout the evening. Ax dealt with this ambuscade by miming a decorous salute and trying to remain focused. He went off the rails only slightly in the first movement, his left hand dragging occasionally but not terribly noticeably. The middle movement was offered at a rather brisk tempo and all came right in a superb Rondo: Allegro.

Bear with me for a moment. Once, when visiting a friend in San Francisco, we went to see a new film. The piece was Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks. The credits were traditional, projected against a stock piece of footage of a Southwestern desert. However, the music was hilarious, ostensibly a cowboy song but punctuated every few seconds with the harsh crack of a whip. My friend leaned over and whispered “He’s messing with us already!” (he didn’t actually say “messing”). In the Op. 31, No. 1 Sonata, Beethoven achieves that same level of hilarity with just one note.

Perhaps there are some significant differences between the comedy tradition of 18th century Germany and that of Hollywood in the 1970’s, but they are negligible. By commencing his sonata with the right hand hitting one sixteenth note before the left hand commences, Beethoven is already at his rollicking best, and only the finest practitioners “get it” to the point of downright delectable high-jinx. In fact, the left hand, normally the arbiter of pace in a standard sonata, does not successfully assert its rhythmic dominance until after the eleventh measure. We are immediately in tipsy territory. The second movement, the Adagio grazioso, seems to live, ala Prokofiev, only in the white keys. Slowly this key restriction fades, but not without a fight. Only a great pianist can make this tension appropriately (and disturbingly) comic. Such a practitioner is Mr. Ax, employing this night a jaunty Allegro vivace and a nearly flawless Adagio grazioso. This was music making of a very high order. Some of the evening’s other material was detritus, but Beethovenian detritus, thus well worth hearing and very well played.

That trip to Northern California so many years ago was centered around a performance of Pollini playing the Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata” (Beethoven detested the soubriquet) at Davies Hall before they bothered to fix the acoustical anomaly of the auditorium wherein the echoes were so distinct that we could all hear the sonata twice at the same time. After the reading my friend remarked that it was inconceivable that so many critics deemed the still rather young Pollini “unemotional”. Of course, it was really the work that swayed him, not the performance.

Ax had a star turn at this amazingly forward-looking piece. The unheard of (and previously unheard) transitions in the first movement from E major to E minor, from A flat major to A flat minor, from E major again to a seeming resolution in E minor (as far away from the original F minor as possible) set the course for the music of the future, specifically the 1830’s Schumann and especially Chopin. It was hard to imagine a grittier, more exciting reading of this transcendental movement and Ax ended with a flourish followed by... no applause. I am on the doorstep of my eighth decade and still cannot figure what makes New York audiences tick.

Fred Kirshnit



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