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Emanuel Ax’s Koerner Hall debut

Koerner Hall
05/13/2012 -  
Aaron Copland: Piano Variations
Joseph Haydn: Andante with Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII:6
Ludwig van Beethoven: Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, Op. 35
Robert Schumann: Etudes en forme de variations, Op. 13

Emanuel Ax (Piano)

E. Ax (© Henry Fair)

Concluding Koerner Hall’s piano series for this season was this substantial recital focused on pieces containing musical variations.

The program was presented chronologically with the exception of the first and newest piece, Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930. From the first notes it comes across as stark and challenging; the severity relents a bit in some lightly scored sections, and it ends with a hectic section spanning a large part of the keyboard. It gives an insight into Copland’s work - with a hard-edged self-conscious modernism - prior to the development of the distinctive style and sound we associate him with.

Joseph Haydn’s Andante with variations in F-Minor (and described by the composer as “un piccolo divertimento” in the copy given to its dedicatee) is a work from his mature years (1793 to be precise) and in many ways epitomizes debonair classicism. Two themes are varied and much intricacy ensues. In the wrong hands much of it could come across as fussy filigree, but Emanuel Ax maintains clarity throughout and imbues the piece with thoughtful feeling.

The theme of Beethoven’s “Eroica” variations seems to have been somewhat of an obsession for Beethoven through a four-year period beginning in 1800 when he used it in a set of breezy country dances. It was also then used in his music for the ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus. The Variations and Fugue performed on this program was composed in 1802, but the name “Eroica” was given to it only after the composer’s final exploitation of the theme in his third symphony of 1804, when he seemed finally to bring his obsession to a close (and with a work that is credited with truly opening the doors to full-blown romanticism and its emphasis on personal expression, not to mention sturm und drang).

Mr. Ax - as one would expect - gave a masterful account of the work, bringing forward the composer’s insistent repetitions of certain notes. Composed just 10 years after Haydn’s classical exemplar, it demonstrates just how Beethoven’s innovations were tugging music in a new direction.

The second half of the program was taken up by Robert Schumann’s Etudes en forme de variations, also known as the symphonic studies. The piece as published by Schumann has twelve sections. Twenty years after the composer’s death Johannes Brahms published an edition containing a further five études - thus there can be differences in performances depending on the sections chosen. Emanuel Ax included three of the later additions, notably a sustained dreamlike section following the scherzando étude V.

The work is actually more a set of études (studies) rather than a thorough-going set of variations like the Beethoven work - and some off the études aren’t variations at all. It’s a multi-varied work reflecting the two sides of Schumann’s personality, the dreamer Eusebius and the more passionate Florestan. It’s a well-loved piece and Emanuel Ax lavished all the requisite care and attention it deserves.

The near-capacity audience received it all enthusiastically (well, maybe not the craggy Copland piece). The two encores were Liszt’s first Valse oubliée and Chopin’s Valse brillante in A-minor.

The 2012-13 piano series will feature an intriguing lineup: Piotr Anderszewski, Horacio Gutiérrez, Louis Lortie with Hélène Mercier, Jan Lisiecki, Jonathan Biss, and Daniil Trifonov. Much to look forward to.

Michael Johnson



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