Ludwig van Beethoven: Six Variations on an Original Theme; "Eroica" Variations
Leonard Bernstein: Touches
Frederic Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie in A Flat Major; Three Mazurkas; Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Under the threat of an impending strike, the subways were empty in New York last evening, but Carnegie Hall was filled as a convivial crowd showed up to hear one of their own. Several classical music luminaries were in the audience, bespeaking the stature and popularity of the recitalist. Although born in Israel, Manny Ax has been here for such a long sojourn that it is difficult to imagine Gotham musical life without him. In my personal collection of ephemera is a National Geographic from the early 1960’s devoted exclusively to my adopted city. Among the photos of manmade wonders and evocative street scenes, is that of a teenaged prodigy just being introduced to the global audience through study and performance here on the upper west side. Looking as youthful today as he did back then, Emanuel Ax confidently sparkled in a mature but playful night of keyboard prestidigitation.
The boyish look reminded of Schroeder on this Beethoven’s birthday, even if the visage was more that of Linus. Ax impressed in the first half of the program with the urbane smoothness of his two variation traversals, only the natural pauses between the individual thoughts breaks in the flow. The ”Eroica” Variations are a rather odd set of pieces; if one did not know who was the composer, it would be logical to assume that this was an hommage to Beethoven, rather than an extension of lyrical thought based on the already familiarly explored themes. But there is just so much meat in these particular nuts as to warrant a fresh essay on their permutative possibilities. Mr. Ax was in total command of this performance, the technical ability prodigious, the interpretive polychromatic. His sensitive and cerebral read of the Bernstein breathed new life into these syncopated disconnects, the piece closest in the late conductor’s repertoire to the amazing Variations for Piano of Webern (not coincidentally, an Ax specialty).
The second half of this event was pure bliss. It takes many years of intense, repetitive practice to be able to perform Chopin with an air of such spontaneity. Already establishing his digital dexterity in the more foursquare Germanic section, this fine interpreter allowed for just the right degree of rakish angle in his Chopin. All of the works save the last come from that unique Polish sense of slight off-balance, this performer making the most of his dizzying high wire dance, pleasing the inner ear with both auditory and equilibrium bravado. Playing all three mazurkas without pause was instructive, the tipsy feel itself a bit uneven, the listener having only just gotten his sea legs when thrust into yet another whirlpool. Also, performing three at once allowed this shy and self-effacing man to skip some of the applause which still seems to make him a bit uncomfortable. Not that he is ungrateful; rather, he exudes a feeling of total befuddlement as to why we are all making such a fuss. I believe that last evening, he was the only person in attendance who had any doubts whatsoever.
Frederick L. Kirshnit