Mozart: Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 533 / K. 494
Liszt: Tre sonetti del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième année : Italie, S. 161
Benedetto sia ‘l giorno
Pace non trovo
l’ vidi in terra angelici costumi
Bach: Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829
Beethoven: Andante in F Major, WoO 57, “Andante favori”
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (Waldstein)
Because balance is everything in life, after a tempestuous Tosca on Tuesday night at the Met, I was more than ready for a more subdued evening on Thursday with a recital by Emmanuel Ax at Carnegie Hall. When I bought my ticket I realized to my horror that I had never attended a solo recital by this legendary musician before, although I had of course enjoyed his prodigious talent in chamber music and orchestral settings. But this was still unpardonable and I was counting the days to fix the situation.
And it would be fixed in grand style as this long overdue tête-à-tête had a hell of a program, which included Baroque Bach, Classical Mozart, Classical-to-Romantic Beethoven and Romantic Liszt, the big reward coming at the very end with Beethoven’s fabulous Waldstein sonata. Things could not get much better than that.
Although it started inconspicuously enough, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major soon turned out to be a feast of intricate inventiveness, with just the right dosage of fun and thoughtfulness. With his effortless virtuosity, Ax effortlessly played music that was glowing from the inside as well as the outside, all technical wizardry wrapped up in pure elegance.
Liszt’s Tre sonetti del Petrarca yanked us out of Mozart’s orderly refinement and into Liszt’s mystical musings inspired by some of Petrarch’s exquisite sonnets. One of the undisputed superstar musicians of his days, Franz Liszt was also a bona fide composer who never stopped searching and experimenting, and those three short tone poems overflow with myriads of emotions, some being more openly expressed than others, that keep the listener spellbound.
We went back to Germanic rigor with Bach’s Partita No. 5, which unsurprisingly stood out for its sheer brilliance, but also for the warmth of Ax’s performance. Some people may find the exacting aspect of Bach’s music off-putting, but beyond it there is also the pure joy of making and sharing exceptional music that perceptive musicians like Ax are able to find, and then fully convey, just like he did on Thursday.
Widely considered to be one of Beethoven's most accomplished and most challenging piano sonatas, the Waldstein occupied the second half of the program in more ways than one since, before he delivered a rapturous performance of it, beautifully emphasizing Beethoven’s shift from classicism to a more heroic style, Ax also played the lovely “Andante favori”, which was the original slow movement of the sonata. Nowadays, the Andante is a much more concise and mysteriously dark passage between two extended, intensively lyrical and irresistibly uplifting movements that altogether make the work such a magnificent creation.
Even if he had been working hard and given us much more than we could have ever hoped for, Ax eventually came back twice: first for Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp Major, and then for Liszt’s “Valse oubliée”, both genuinely heart-felt and simply wonderful. With encores like this, it is a miracle to remember the official program!