176 keys to a successful duo debut for Hamelin and Ax

April 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Marc-Andre Hamelin and Emanuel Ax performed Brahms Sunday at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres.

Listening to Marc-André Hamelin and Emanuel Ax, you would think that they have been playing together for a long time. The two pianists perform with such uniform expression that they can practically finish each others’ phrases.

That was evident in their first-ever duo performance as part of an all-Brahms recital Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall.

The program is the second of Hamelin’s three Celebrity Series events this season. These recitals, which feature solo and chamber works that range from Schubert to Hamelin himself, are billed as “The Art of the Piano.”

Brahms’ contributions to the list are certainly hard to ignore, and Hamelin and Ax offered a glittering reading of the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor, Op. 34b.

The music, better known today as the Piano Quintet in F minor, actually began as a string quartet. Brahms, ever the perfectionist, revised and adapted the piece on the advice and protestations of Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann. Though the Quintet proved the most successful version, Brahms preferred the two-piano setting and published it separately.

It’s a work chock full of dark lyricism, furious technical passages, and thick, almost orchestral textures.

From the beginning it was easy to hear that Hamelin and Ax were a perfect match to each other. Ax’s fluid phrases complemented Hamelin’s more crisp statements. Both brought their own sweet touches to the lyrical lines of the sonata’s second movement. They attacked the Scherzo’s fanfare-like triplets with thunderous force, and their cascading lines came together in passages of spring-water clarity. After sensitive treatment of the searching harmonies that open the finale, Ax and Hamelin pushed the tempo in the ensuing Allegro ma non troppo for a brilliant rendering of the galloping themes.

The recital began with Hamelin in a performance of Brahms’ Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5.

This third and final of his solo piano sonatas, was written by a twenty-year-old Brahms, yet is a mature work of lyrical depth, symphonic scope, and surprising shifts in mood. Chord-crashing statements can shift suddenly to passages suffused with ghostly harmonies.

Moods frequently collide. In the finale, Hamelin floated a song-like theme in his right hand while supplying nervous tremolos in his left. He made easy work of the first movement, its grand gestures and brooding passages sounding rich and dark.

Elsewhere, the pianist brought a soft touch to the music’s mercurial phrases, yet his sound never lost its bell-tone majesty. The cascading phrases of the Scherzo, a quotation from the finale of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio, rippled from high to low and back again, the pianist, in the process, taking time to craft the phrases with ebb and flow to the tempo.

Beethoven’s presence runs deep in this sonata, notably in the many appearances of the most famous motive in music history, the four notes that open of the Fifth Symphony. In the Intermezzo, Hamelin answered the deliberate motives with phrases of searching lyricism.

His most affecting playing came in the second movement. Hamelin blurred his lines for a poetic rendering well suited to the short verse that Brahms inscribed in the printed score: “Through evening’s shade, the pale moons gleams, While rapt in love’s ecstatic dreams, Two hearts are fondly beating.”

Hamelin will return for a Celebrity Series recital next month, joining violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinetist Martin Fröst in music by Schubert, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Debussy, and Bartók 8 p.m. May 2 at Jordan Hall.

The next Celebrity Series program will feature tenor Nicholas Phan in songs by Schubert and Britten 8 p.m. Thursday at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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