Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Emanuel Ax at Strathmore

Pardon the radio silence, one gets discouraged from writing things about nice orchestra concerts when brooding over stupid no-good politics. And yet I suppose I really should thank the Dresden Staatskapelle and NSO from saving me from spending last Wednesday and Thursday evenings reading endless conservative takeover horror porn (articles). So good job orchestras, particularly the great, fluid Brahms 2nd from the Staatskapelle and that knockout creepshow Bartok piece from the NSO and guest conductor Xian Zhang (who is a dynamo to watch, PS).

But no use dwelling on the future, the concert season goes on! Last night was Emanuel Ax at Strathmore--who, I missed, I believe, in his last WPAS outing--in a program of Schubert and Chopin. It was a lovely show, and I wouldn't think of complaining, but I'm curious about what drives the staid programming for big time piano recital series. We know that so many of these artists are big champions of the piano literature of contemporary composers and overlooked 20th century composers, and yet year after year its the greatest hits without even the little bit of spinach major orchestras are able to work into the pre-intermission slot in their subscription series. What gives? Do presenters demand the vanilla repertoire for their flagship series? Is the elusive recital subscriber that much more fickle than your symphony subscriber? Do the artists just not feel this is the venue for all this work they are otherwise working diligently to champion through...I dunno...their late nite TV gigs? It's weird.

Oh, but I suppose we'll take Schubert and Chopin if we must. The Schubert half kicked off with the four impromptus of Op. 142. These pieces are such a perfect showcase for the rounded, ringing tones Ax elicits from his piano--to say there are no "rough edges" makes it sound as though the effect is boring or too pretty, but his exacting attention to the beauty of each sound makes the music more real, more present--the spell is never broken. I particularly enjoyed the faster tempo in the opening and closing sections of No.2 (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), which lent a playful, familiar air to what often comes off somber, though the exquisite middle section may not have had a chance to blossom as much at that speed. The real treat of the first half was the Sonata in A Major (Op. 120)--the endless melody of the first movement seemed to sing from somewhere several feet above the keyboard.

For the Chopin half, Ax offered a winning Baccarolle (op. 60), followed by three Mazurkas (Nos. 1, 2, and 3 of op. 59). The Mazurkas are primordial piano music for me, so its sort of hard to be objective, but Ax's readings have a welcome plainspoken earthiness--always excited to get to the dance break and never degenerating into the kind of self-conscious prettiness better meant for other Chopin. Of the two Nocturnes he played, the D-flat Major (C-sharp minor was the other) achieved a particularly stunning suspended-in-time feeling. The last piece was the Scherzo No.2 Op. 31--I'm afraid I find this piece a bit tedious, and not especially exciting as a showpiece (tho it is obviously HARD). Ax brought out a lot of color, but it still felt a bit disjointed. Not sure how you solve that problem. Encores were the "Valse brilliante" and something else ChopinSchumann...


Anonymous said...

Great review. I've been enjoying the profusion of Chopin and Schumann in this 200th anniversary year.

I really love Ax, and I could listen to him play a recital of Clementi sonatinas if he chose. (That's my recital equivalent of reading the phonebook.) I think Ax is playing at Lincoln Center this season in a series of Schubert-based programs focusing more on the late music.


Alex said...

After the other night, I suspect recordings are particularly poor at conveying what's so special about him -- the purity and consistency of the sounds he is able to produce on a real live piano, the marvel of how they fill the hall--just seems difficult to replicate on tape.

I must look up those Lincoln Center concerts--I would travel in a heart beat to see those late sonatas live.

Anonymous said...

January 21, 2011 7:30 PM
January 23, 2011 5:00 PM
Chamber Music Society Lincoln Center - Alice Tully Hall

Emmanuel Ax et al.

Schubert: Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major for Piano, D. 899, Op. 90
Harbison November 19, 1828 for Piano Quartet
Schubert Rondo in A major for Piano, Four Hands, D. 951
Stucky New Work for Piano, Four Hands (CMS Commission, World Premiere)
Meyer Trout Variations for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass (CMS Co-Commission)
Schubert Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, Op. 114, "Trout"

Ax's Great Performers Lincoln Center Schubert Series:

Sat, Feb 26, 2011, 7:30 pm
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater

Four Impromptus, D.935
Sonata in A major, D.664
Sonata in B-flat major, D.960

Sun, Mar 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Emanuel Ax, piano

Sonata in A minor, D.845

Pre-concert lecture by Christopher H. Gibbs at 3:45 pm in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse

Alex said...

Thanks! Also, missing New York...

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