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Ax-uberant! Ax-citing! Ax-traordinary

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
01/02/2009 -  & January 3, 6, 2009
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 2
Richard Strauss: Burleske for piano and orchestra
Karol Szymanowski: Symphony No. 4 for piano and orchestra
Modeste Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition

Emanuel Ax (Piano), Robert Langevin (Flute), Liang Wang (Oboe), Philip Smith (Piccolo Trumpet), Sheryl Staples (Violin), Paolo Bordignon (Harpsichord)
New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel (Conductor)

Forget this week’s New Year festivities. When Emanuel Ax sits down at the Steinway for a pair of unusual orchestral works with piano, well, that’s a party. The man’s assuredness is one thing, his amazing technique another. Most essential, something about Emanuel Ax transports an utter joy for his instruments to any audience. And even if the work he plays is unfamiliar, Mr. Ax does his best to make it accessible. We have all heard him playing the most serious Bach to the most strenuous Brahms, and never is It anything but supremely satisfying.

His challenges last night were doubled, since neither work was a concerto, yet the Szymanowski Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Burleske don’t quite fit into the regular repertory, nor do either of them represent their composers’ style. Yet Mr. Ax took the virtuosic challenges to both and made the anonymous genres honestly familiar.

Richard Strauss’s Burleske is not quite a rarity, but it’s rarely played, since the length of 17 minutes is too short for an evening. But it’s a very jaunty piece in the right hands. One of Strauss’s earliest pieces (he was 21 when he wrote it), the piano is dazzling, the orchestra—especially the kettledrums which start it off—and the rhythms are infectious. Some say that the influences were Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. But I for one always felt that Strauss was parodying those composers.

Mr. Ax wouldn’t agree. He played it straight. The luscious Chopin-like solo was offered like a Chopin outtake, the grand orchestra. Schumann sections had a pianistic grandeur. And the duets with timpanist Markus Rhoten were delightful. The work is flashy at times (and Mr. Ax never hesitated to show off his digits), is ironic in the ending, and the waltz-like themes were a forerunner of Rosenkavalier/

Preceding this, though, was a work which demands more and more hearings. Karol Szymanowski doesn’t have the best reputation in the world. And when Leon Botstein performed his opera, King Roger last summer, it hardly did justice. But this Fourth Symphony, played last in New York some 20 years ago, needs to become part of the repertory.

It would be too easy—and correct—to say that it sounds exactly like a Bartók piano concerto, even down to the “night music” middle movement. But the tunes are more folk than the Hungarian ever allowed himself, and the style is Polish, not Magyar. The piece starts with a hypnotic beauty: four measures of amorphous beats by timpani and strings, before pianist Ax comes in with the most beautiful octaves (actually the hands are a few octaves apart), and a development of Tatras Mountain tunes, with lovely solo orchestral playing. But Mr. Ax, whether playing up and down the keyboard or simply harmonizing with the most luscious harmonies, is in control the whole time.

That Andante is equally beautiful, with Mr. Ax playing against a flute from ancient Attica, joined by horns and the whole orchestra. But not until the third movement do we get the most unique music of the whole evening. Again, timpanist Markus Rhoten starts the proceedings with a jumping bolero-like theme, which—except for a rambling middle section—is almost obsessive in its power. That dance rhythm never stops, whether played by percussion, piano (frequently in the bass, imitating drums) or the whole orchestra. It ends with a huge burst of energy—and the modest Mr. Ax rising up, obviously delighted by his own music.

I’m not ignoring the conductor, Lorin Maazel, but it happened to be Emanuel Ax’s night. Mr. Maazel, though wisely used the full string section for the Bach second Brandenburg. His soloists, Phil First Chair players, were excellent, especially Philip Smith, playing those extra-high notes on the Piccolo Trumpet. This old smaller instrument can sometimes sound dry, but Mr. Smith played the soprano notes with virtuoso strength and the acoustic balance, so he never overwhelmed his colleagues.

Mr. Maazel finished this eclectic program with the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. (Doesn’t anybody want to try Stokowski’s interesting Slavic orchestration some day?). The conductor took it with a surprisingly moderate pacing, allowing each soloist to blow or bow with comfortable tempos. But the conductor had a final surprise. Before the final fanfares, Mr. Maazel ignored the little pausing caesura and gave the orchestra a whole bar of rest. When they came back, the tintinnabulation of the bell was totally medievally Russian, down to the rusty off-tone resonances.

For a work which as familiar as Pictures, Mr. Maazel added an authentic climax straight from the Bountiful Hanging Bosom of Great Mother Russia herself.

Harry Rolnick



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