Friday, March 29, 2019

Emanuel Ax - Brahms, Benjamin, Schumann, Ravel & Chopin - 03/27/19

Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79, No. 1 
Brahms: Rhapsody in G Minor, Op. 79, No. 2 
Benjamin: Piano Figures Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 
Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales 
Chopin: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1 
Chopin: Three Mazurkas, Op. 50 
Chopin: Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22 

One of the most quietly reliable pianists of the past decades, Emanuel Ax was paying his annual solo visit to Carnegie Hall last Wednesday night. And even if I’ve always found the Stern Auditorium to be too large of a venue for recitals, I have also come to the conclusion that its pitch-perfect acoustics, instant visual appeal and prestigious history (Ah! If only those walls could talk!) more than make up for its lack of intimacy, so there was no way I was going to miss it.
With musicians like Emanuel Ax, the program is almost a second thought, but this one happened to be a winner as well with a nice mix of goodies spanning a wide range of periods and styles, including certified hits like Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and less well-known works like Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, all of which were promising a very rewarding evening of piano music.

The unabashed Romanticism of Johannes Brahms’ Rhapsody in B Minor and Rhapsody in G Minor opened the concert on a highly lyrical and strongly energized note, a testimony not only to the superior composing skills of Brahms, but also to the superb performing skills of Ax. It was a very comfortable and deeply satisfying introduction to the many other special moments to come.
Next, the wild card of the program, George Benjamin’s Piano Figures, turned out to be a wonderful 10-minute set consisting of 10 self-contained miniatures that offered a wide range of unusual colors and harmonies in tiny, fascinating packages. As Ax himself cheekily pointed out, if you disliked one, there was another one right around the corner. Those reassuring words soon proved unnecessary though, as each of those little gems shone bright in its own distinctive way.
A recurring staple in concerts halls, Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke did not need any introduction. On the other hand, Ax’s interpretation of those eight substantial vignettes was so fresh and exciting that the whole series sounded like a brand new piece that everybody should get to know. As a regular concert-goer, I had heard it quite a few times before, and by exceptionally talented pianists too, and had always found it enjoyable for sure, but not much more.
On Wednesday night, however, I finally understood what the fuss had been all about all this time. The two highly contrasted personalities of thoughtful Eusebius and volatile Florestan were easy and fun to discern, as they usually are. But when you have a naturally engaging virtuoso like Ax running the show, you also quickly become aware of the myriads of insightful details created by Schumann’s vivid imagination, not the least a delightful sense of humor. And it was that higher level of understanding that for me turned what could have been just another excellent performance into a truly memorable experience.
After intermission, Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales were a nice detour to early 20th century France, where Ravel was busy breaking new ground while still drawing inspiration from traditional conventions. I can’t say that those waltzes are my favorite pieces of his – his string quartet, his violin sonata No. 2 or his Bolero would vie for that title – but they contain enough rhythmical tricks that Ax ingeniously handled to make them noteworthy.
And then entered the master of the piano, the one and only Frederic Chopin, with a small but neat assortment of short works that was representative to some degree of his impressive œuvre, even if none of his extraordinary ballades were included (sigh). But you have to be grateful for what you get, and what we got on Wednesday night from Ax was pretty darn terrific.
The mini Chopin marathon started with a soulful Nocturne in B Major, which reminded us, if need be, why he has remained the leading composer of the genre. It also featured a sparkling rendition of the folksy Three Mazurkas, and ended with a stunningly lyrical Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, which was indisputably brilliant indeed. So brilliant in fact, that a few audience members could not contain their enthusiasm until the end and started clapping while the last notes were being played. Thanks for nothing.

After a timely rapturous ovation from the rest of us, neither the soloist nor the audience seemed ready to leave just yet, so the former treated the latter to not one but two dazzling encores by Chopin, his Nocturne in F-sharp Major and his Waltz in A-flat Major. Because one can simply never hear too much Chopin.

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