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Two For The Show

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/21/2008 -  
Johannes Brahms: Variations On A Theme by Haydn, Opus 56b
William Bolcom: Recuerdos
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Opus 45

Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman (Pianos)

Y. Bronfman & E. Ax (© Richard Termine)

Call it a critic’s night off. A time to put away notebooks and pens and adjectives and metaphors, and listen to a good show. A show of friendship and artistry and precision---oh, so much precision. Because a concert of two-piano music put on by artists who are used to playing solo or with a whole orchestra can be a dangerous proposition.

The danger is in the right balance, of course. And being attuned to each other without being robotic with each other. Of playing music which was never very profound and giving it both interest and daring. Of offering the utmost technical precision, while never never making it sound dull. And of realizing that music written for two pianos can be calculating but should never seem like a calculus. The chess game of ten fingers now is doubled, but it has to look like it’s three-dimensional chess.

With Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax at the helm, nobody was worried for a fraction of a second. We might not have felt electrons colliding or brain-thundering music, but we felt the comfort of colleagues who were obviously friends, who enjoyed seeing how their considerable individual resources sounded when put together.

With professional duo-pianists like the Labèque Sisters, one feels a single organism at work. It can almost be disconcerting to hear them do, say, the Poulenc Two-Piano Concerto, since we don’t hear two pianos. We hear 20 fingers playing with one organic energy field. But the two last night were themselves, and that enabled a concert for the sheer joy of geniuses at work.

The two have different reputations, of course. Bronfman has the most incredible strength when performing Prokofiev that anything less arduous, and you feel that he could burst if he wanted. Emanuel Ax I heard a half-dozen times in Hong Kong with Stern and Ma, so the perception is of a collaborator, a man of the most full-blown artistic sensibilities.

Together, though, they simply made music. Two of the works, the Brahms Haydn Variations and Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, are best known in orchestral versions. Obviously, the mind was unconsciously coloring the playing—at first—with strings and brass. But soon the color was sheer piano. The two, who switched around First and Second Piano for each work, ideally balanced out their sounds and shared the honors. But most apparent of all was the phrasing which these two possess. The grace of the Brahms and the grand orchestral textures of the Rachmaninoff (including the banged-out Dies Irae) came across with the and solace at one time.

The Mozart Two-Piano Sonata was elegant and sensitive at one time. As for the middle movement, this initially seemed like the slow movement of a concerto, until the two pianos coalesced into one.

The single piece new to most was the wonderful William Bolcom’s Recuerdos (“Memorabilia”). The three Spanish-inspired pieces were not his best. He seems more at home in ragtime pastiches, in American cabaret and in Ivesian playfulness. But they were pleasantly lilting, they were indeed memories of Gottschalk and other composers of the 19th Century. More important, it gave Ax and Bronfman a chance to sit back and be happily rhythmical.

The single encore, Dvorak’s Opus 46, No. 3 Slavonic Dance was equally amiable, equally enjoyable. The fact that in less than 48 hours, another pair of pianists—Levine and Barenboim—will be in the same hall is of no consequence at all. Ax and Bronfman are complete in themselves, and their unassuming joy was joyfully transported to we lucky listeners.

Harry Rolnick



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