Emanuel Ax proves better than his word in Celebrity Series recital

October 29, 2018 at 1:22 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Emanuel Ax performed Sunday at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Emanuel Ax performed Sunday at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

It’s common for pianists to stick with music that falls naturally under the fingers, and Emanuel Ax certainly has his comfortable favorites. But it’s hard to take him at his word when he says — as he did, for example, when asked recently why he doesn’t perform more Russian music — that some repertoire is beyond him. Humility aside, Ax ranks among the best for his ability to render a wide variety of music with searching and tasteful expressive depth.

Although no Russian composers made it into his Celebrity Series recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Ax’s subtle yet dynamic versatility was on full display in program of Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Benjamin, and Ravel.

Few pianists have the ability to pull off such a standard program convincingly. Yet Ax with his pearly tone managed to shade each work with the right amount of flair, heightening the contrasts between composers who too often sound similar when paired. In his hands, Schumann did not sound like watered-down Chopin, and his Brahms had an almost orchestral weight and power.

Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, opened the concert, and Ax performed these short pieces with full-bodied, romantic exuberance without resorting to crash-bang intensity. He sculpted the opening theme of the B minor Rhapsody with palpable weight while floating its second theme with a haunting and mysterious tone. In the opening of the G minor Rhapsody, Ax made the most of Brahms’ thick textures by unleashing torrents of double octaves.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke was just as emotionally charged. Written in 1837, this book of eight picturesque movements unfolds as a dialogue between Schumann’s dual personalities, the poetic Eusebius and fiery Florestan. The opening “Des Abends” was perfectly phrased, Ax’s rubato tempo producing beautiful melodic arcs. “Aufschwung” ranged from bright filigree to creamy lyricism, and the Eusebian “Warum?” flowed with quiet dignity. “In der Nacht” was a both a turbulent and sentimental depiction of its namesake.

Ax had less to work with when it came to George Benjamin’s Piano Figures. Completed in 2004, this set of ten miniatures explores different keyboard techniques. But in their extreme brevity, the movements’ colorful sonorities and pulsing figures often burn up on launch. The etherial “Spell” didn’t have time to develop into anything interesting. The melodies of “Knots” and “In the Mirror” churned energetically but in no particular direction. The sixth piece, “Hammers,” was the best of the bunch, Ax’s finely chiseled chords supplying snappy, syncopated pulses. Playing with conviction, and with Benjamin’s score open in front of him, Ax made the most of this half-baked music.

He is equally at home in impressionism, as he showed on Sunday with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. Ax performed this dazzling suite of eight waltzes with a silky touch that let even the most agitated sections flower beautifully, and he finished by leaving the phrases of the final waltz to fade delicately in the air like smoke.

The Chopin works in Sunday’s program were just as alluring. After a glowing rendition of the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1, Ax turned to Chopin’s collection of Mazurkas, Op. 50. In each, Ax emphasized the foot-stomping quality — the strong and drawn-out first beat — that other pianists tend to either neglect or overdo. Most arresting was the C-sharp minor Mazurka, where Ax’s generous rubato resulted in fluent yet dramatically charged phrases.

Ax’s finale, Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, demonstrated the show-stopping power that still resides in Chopin’s music. This set of two movements is a gauntlet for any pianist: Trickling figures take the player all over the keyboard. Robust scales and emphatic chords interrupt the melody.

Ax handled the wide leaps, cascading figures, and difficult runs with poise and precision. Yet these dramatic elements are never ends in themselves, and Ax wove each into a satisfying musical narrative. He encored with Chopin’s tenderly expressive Nocturne in F-sharp, Op. 15, No. 2, by which time it was clear that he is capable of much more than he humbly lets on. 

The Celebrity Series continues with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performing Purcell, Britten, Spears, Poulenc, Handel, and Glass 8 p.m. November 7 at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

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