Ax plays Beethoven with insight and the long view

May 2, 2016 at 2:42 pm

By David Wright

Emanuel Ax performed music of Beethoven Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Emanuel Ax performed music of Beethoven Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Take an athlete’s reflexes, a singer’s way with a phrase, and an architect’s sense of line and proportion, put them all together, and you have Emanuel Ax performing an all-Beethoven program Sunday afternoon at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. 

The pianist held a capacity audience in thrall with a program of three sonatas, a set of variations, and a polonaise, with no theatrics on the piano bench, only keen insight and marvelously fleshed-out renderings of Beethoven’s musical ideas.

It was a publisher, not Beethoven, who gave the name “Pathétique” to the Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, and ever since then the first movement’s dramatic alternation of slow and fast tempos has been the excuse for much waving about and shaking of locks by pianists. 

Ax’s calm approach to the music may have seemed perversely businesslike at first, the phrases and pauses arriving right on time, with no “special effects.”  But it soon became apparent that the pianist was hunting bigger game—not just the effect of the moment, but the effect of the whole movement, indeed of the entire sonata. 

Thus, the pleading phrases of the opening bars grew more “pathetic,” and the pauses between them more pregnant, each time they returned to interrupt the fiery Allegro molto e con brio, which also unfolded with a long-view logic of its own.  Ax treated the exposition repeat as an opportunity to go back and savor details he had presented more objectively the first time, and he made clear what new territory Beethoven was exploring in the recapitulation.

The tender melody of the Andante cantabile sang out gently and simply, the little pushes and pulls of tempo never calling attention to themselves.  Not content with just distinguishing between melody and accompaniment, Ax voiced the music at many levels, creating the illusion of a duet between an expert and sensitive pianist and an equally accomplished singer.

In Classical terms, the finale offers a relaxation of tensions experienced earlier in the sonata.  In Beethoven’s “pathétique” terms, the finale reflects, at a distance, the fury of the first movement—even, in this case, borrowing a theme from it.  Ax managed to honor both concepts in a taut, bracing performance of this final movement.

Beethoven’s Variations in F major, Op. 34, are about as far from “pathétique” as one can get, a flight of lyrical imagination that leaves the Classical unities of key and mood behind.  Ax’s approach was also completely different than in the sonata, presenting the fervent theme not objectively but molto espressivo.

Where could he go from there?  Well, to variations that were by turns whimsical, flashy, flowing, ornate, and militant, closing with a dizzy waltz and a distant, more “objective,” reminiscence of the theme—an expressive arc entirely different from that of the sonata, and equally satisfying.

The Sonata in G major, Op. 31, No. 1, exploits that bugaboo of piano pupils: hands not together.  Most of the two-hand chords in the first movement make a kerplunk sound, like the reverb in an empty room, as the right hand lands a split second before the left.  Many pianists seize on this effect and just play it for laughs.

Ax never lost sight of the fact that the chords, odd-sounding as they were, formed a musical line that was going someplace, and that the kerplunk itself was a musical motive that Beethoven was varying and developing as the movement unfolded.  As a result, and also incorporating its blazing scales and harmonic color changes into the overall design, the pianist had some serious fun with this movement.

The Adagio grazioso, by contrast, sounded like a soprano’s star turn, its simple but shapely melody returning with ever-more-fantastic ornamentation.  Even the serenade-style, staccato accompaniment was elaborated, from leisurely triplets to rapid double notes in sixteenths, which could sound like a Boy Scout troop running down stairs but which Ax played with exquisite taste and delicacy.

The sonata’s closing Rondo, with its attractive main theme, ambled along in a Schubert-like mood at an Allegretto tempo.  The composer’s episodes and elaborations seemed less inspired than in the previous movements, and not even the resourceful Ax could sustain interest for its entire, considerable length, although the whimsical coda brought welcome echoes of the first movement at the sonata’s end.

The recital’s second half opened with the sorbet course, Beethoven’s extravagant Polonaise in C major, Op. 89.  Whipped up for a visit to Vienna by the Empress of Russia, the piece mixed imperial pomp with a popular Polish court dance and some far-out, let-Beethoven-be-Beethoven harmonic modulations.  (The Empress was pleased, and paid the composer handsomely.) 

Again, Ax had fun with loud-soft contrasts and stretchy rubato, without getting too jokey about it.  He couldn’t resist putting a Chopin-like inflection or two in the main polonaise tune, and he made note of a chromatic slide in Beethoven’s score that could have come from the Polish master himself.

Ax’s sense of architecture gave particular distinction to his performance of the program’s closing work, the Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”—another publisher’s handle).  The work’s rip-roaring intensity can become an end in itself in performance, but Ax made sure a goal was in view and that this turbulent music flowed inexorably toward it. 

Clear tone and voicing made sure that even the softest passages, such as the work’s opening and the first movement’s theme in octaves, sounded as intensely focused as the loud ones.  The pianist played even the volatile development section with a breadth that kept the long line aloft.

This sonata’s variations movement was just a brief interlude, not even allowed to come to a full cadence before the finale swept it away.  Ax followed its serene course at a steady tempo, with singing tone and pearly elaborations but no exaggerated expression, a moment of respite before the storm.

The pianist’s long view provided the most impressive few minutes of this excellent recital, an “Appassionata” finale that was not just fast and exciting, but a single, unbroken line from its first ominous murmurs to its crushing conclusion.  Accents, transitions, crescendos and decrescendos were all just part of the overriding purpose, to sweep the listener helplessly down to that last F minor chord at the bottom of the keyboard.

The audience was of course on its feet at the end, and Ax obliged them with one encore, a touching performance of Schubert’s melancholy song “The Miller and the Brook,” as gently elaborated for piano solo by Franz Liszt.

This recital concluded the classical music presentations of Celebrity Series of Boston for the 2015-16 season.  The series’ first classical concert in 2016-17 will be Ian Bostridge, tenor, and Thomas Adès, piano, on Oct.; 617-482-6661.


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