Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: Emanuel Ax

March 5, University of Richmond

Emanuel Ax playing Brahms: For any classical concertgoer, that’s a no-brainer – witness the full house that greeted the eminent pianist.

Ax delivered, although not quite as expected.

The first surprise was the bright, at times almost glaring, tone he produced on the University of Richmond’s Steinway in the early (Op. 2) Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, vs. the more burnished sound heard in the later Op. 119 piano pieces and “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” Op. 24.

The difference was not inappropriate. In its first movement and sections of subsequent ones, Op. 2 is far from “autumnal” Brahms, and not much like the music of his mentors, Robert and Clara Schumann. In a blindfold test, even some knowledgeable listeners might mistake these sections for music by some piano virtuoso of the mid-19th century. A more recognizeable Brahms emerges in time, especially in the scherzo’s central section and the sonata’s finale. Ax traced this evolution brilliantly.

The second surprise was the mixture of the three intermezzos and concluding Rhapsody in E flat major of the Op. 119 set with three short pieces forming “Hommage à Brahms” by the Australian violist-composer Brett Dean. Dean’s harmonic language is not too far removed from that of Brahms in Op. 119, his last solo-piano works; and Ax’s phrasing and dynamic treatment of the contemporary pieces linked them even more audibly to the old master. The one really jarring transition was between the last of Dean’s pieces, sounding like an otherworldly nocturne, and the Brahms Rhapsody, which tonally and rhetorically is an echo of the high-romantic composer.

Another contemporary nod to Brahms, Missy Mazzoli’s “Bolts of Loving Thunder” (great title!), which Ax described as being inspired by Mazzoli’s practicing Brahms on the piano, could be called “Brahms through the looking (or listening) glass” – Brahmsian in structure, gesture and expressive arc, much less so in tone and harmonic language.

The “Handel Variations,” concluding the program, was the Brahms the audience came to hear, a canny balance of warm lyricism, grand rhetoric and understated playfulness, played by a musician whose mastery was such that it sounded almost like improvisation.

That would have sent everyone home happy. A bit of Schumann as an encore gave extra pleasure.