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Union: Emanuel Ax
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Program
Bach-Busoni: Chaconne
Schubert: Impromptu in B-Flat Major, Op. 142, No. 3
Chopin: Variations Brillantes, Op. 12
Copland: Piano Variations
Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

Performers
Emanuel Ax, piano

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Playing before a sell-out audience Friday evening at the Union Theater, pianist Emanuel Ax presented a highly unusual program consisting entirely of sets of variations. Opening with Busoni's ultra-Romantic re-invention of the massive Chaconne from J. S. Bach's Partita in D Minor for solo violin, Ax displayed a wide interpretive range appropriate to the many moods of this remarkable work, from heroic grandeur to intimate introspection. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne embodies every pianistic challenge imaginable, including prodigious memory (there were a few slips), massive chordal groups, incredibly fleet passagework, intricate polyphonic textures, and complex dynamic staging. Ax managed all that with consummate skill and highly personal affection.

This same scale of pianism was evident in the program's closing piece, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 by Brahms. Though equally Romantic as the Busoni, the 25 brief variations by Brahms are more classically organized, each in a definite style, from simple and lyrical to massive and brilliant. The lengthy fugue has a running subject that lends itself to extended technical elaboration, and when its thundering close arrives, every device in a pianist's lexicon of articulations has been revealed. Ax seemed more at home with the softer lyrical moments than the louder fast and furious ones, though this does not imply the latter were deficient musically. It's simply that this is the kind of playing he does best, I think.

Intimacy and lyricism marked both the Schubert (the Impromptu in B-Flat Major, Op. 142, No. 3) and the Chopin (the Variations brillantes, Op. 12), each of which strongly evoked the Romantic sensibilities of Schumann as it unfolded in its own chacteristic way. Schubert's simple theme undergoes a set of lyrical and harmonic transformations of utter charm, and Ax held back nothing in the process of revealing the work. The Chopin (this was only the second time in my life I'd heard it) exhibits the elegant, decorative pianism so familiar with this composer's music, a style for which Ax has an affinity to a degree shared with almost no other pianist. As far as the works already mentioned are concerned, it was the sort of program that completely fits Ax's style of playing.

What set the whole program apart for me was the work I would never have associated with Ax, Copland's Piano Variations (1930). This is music for musicians, as its completely uncompromising structure and texture is anything but immediately accessible to a typical audience. To oversimplify, it consists mainly of two two-note motifs, greatly elaborated in the course of 20 brief variations, the whole work lasting less than a dozen minutes. Ax brought to his performance an amazing intensity -- it's definitely not a snap to play -- and a comprehensive display of keyboard mastery. For all its angularity and dissonance, the work's sudden lyrical outbursts provided totally affecting moments. It's a spectacular piece and it was very beautifully played!

The enthusiatic ovation after the Brahms elicited two encores, a waltz and a mazurka by Chopin. There was no doubt that Ax's eighth Madison concert was a complete triumph, blending mastery with congeniality as few other artists can.

Isthmus, December, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson




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