The lives of world-class pianists are fraught with many challenges from endless travel to less than exemplary pianos to conflicting repertoire that forces “Plan B” changes, adding dozens of hours of extra practice. The latter is especially true in the concerto literature where a constant diet of Brahms’ second concerto might suit the performer but neither the audience nor management.
Accordingly, solo recitals are far less onerous to plan or work around. Emanuel Ax’s being a case in point. With well-loved Schubert (the Impromptus—hearing these miracles of concise expression six days straight would only demand a seventh) and lesser-known (the glowing, beautifully understated A Major Sonata) gems as well as the histrionics of Liszt—culminating in the heady vigour of the Mephisto Waltz No. 1—the need to “substitute” in any of the centres along the just-starting tour will be unnecessary.
For a man of his experience and talent, how wonderfully surprising that these works are “new to me” (cross-reference below). The appreciative crowd in McCallum Theatre was treated to an evening similar to breaking in a headstrong horse or new pair of gleaming leather shoes.
Less than a month after Alfred Brendel’s retirement (cross-reference below), there is now an opening for the finest interpreter of Schubert’s singular sonatas and “shorter” (only in time; their musical content is in no way related to duration) pieces. With Op. 142, Ax initially wrestled with the master’s legendary technical challenges but soon managed many moments of sublime introspection which speaks well for future performances as the readings mature. Lyrical No. 2 was played at a brisk pace, ostensibly to balance the depth of its predecessor, yet by the time its middle was reached the result seemed more laden with drama than angst. Unforgettable (and a rare skill) were several split-second moments of “hesitato” that lurk invisibly on the pages but must be felt rather than seen.
Not surprisingly, given Ax’s special affinity for the form, the variations of No. 3 were easily the highlight of the set. The perfect tempo made the music’s wonderfully childlike naïveté a joy at every turn. The cascading triplets—notably from the left hand—were delivered with incredible finesse, setting up a magically balanced “adieu.”
No. 4 is not yet fully formed (by Ax’s standards; others could only hope to have his “problems”), but at every return the confidence and flow improved. As the concerts continue this dark horse may well become the favourite.
Following intermission (which was preceded by a marvellously controlled Vallee d’Obermann—also notable for the thorough understanding and delivery of Liszt’s harmonic plan), Schubert’s sunny, three-movement sonata warmed every heart in the room. Especially welcome was the “Andante.” By now, Ax had conquered the vagaries of the Steinway and crafted an intensely personal reading that abounded in unabashed, yet never sentimental, truth.
The journey into new realms concluded with a fully hued canvas (Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123) and the devilish waltz whose drive and excitement was unleashed from the git-go and never wavered even as the epitome of Romantic spirit flew madly along its frantic path. Following the cheers of the crowd, a Chopin Mazurka was the ideal sherbet after such an emotionally exhilarating meal.
Here’s to Ax’ courage of conviction and the promise of even greater results in performances to come. JWR