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Emanuel Ax's Polished Piano

Long-time listeners of classical music surely remember pianist Emanuel Ax, if for nothing else than his classic recordings of chamber music with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and other friends for RCA and Sony. His releases these days, though, are mostly of the remastered and reissued variety, which may explain the tepid attendance for his WPAS recital at Strathmore on Wednesday night. Ax has been appearing with various orchestras in Washington in recent years -- with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2006 and 2005, again with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2006, with the National Symphony Orchestra also in 2006, and also in Munich in 2008 -- but it was his gently considered performance of Beethoven's second piano concerto earlier this year, again with the NSO, that convinced me that Ax had passed into a sort of autumn-golden period in his career.

Ax's presence on the stage, both physical and musical, was possibly the most unassuming of any in recent memory. The first half -- all Schubert, relatively light pieces, less troubled by a sense of impending mortality -- was gorgeously delicate and subtly phrased, in the vein of some great Schubert playing reviewed recently in these pages, like Martin Helmchen, David Fray, and others, including my new keyboard obsession, Georgian pianist Elisso Wirssaladze (about whom, more later). After a little finger stiffness evident in the first impromptu of the op. 142 set (D. 935), Ax's right hand showed remarkable grace and facility in the figuration of no. 2 and was airy and light in the octaves and filigree decoration of no. 3. He found an apt tone and character for each one of these elusive pieces, such as wide-eyed naïveté in no. 3 and a devilish lilt in no. 4. These went quite well with the A major sonata (op. 120, D. 664), with its first movement played with a child-like, music box sort of wonder, an air of reminiscence that returned in the third movement, after a longing second movement, its murmuring accompaniment skilfully voiced.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Emanuel Ax at Strathmore (Washington Post, November 12)

Alex Baker, Emanuel Ax at Strathmore (Wellsung, November 10)
An all-Chopin second half was in much the same vein as the first half, and perhaps for that reason felt a little reserved and retiring. Ax gave us the nostalgic side of Chopin, the rubato languidly stretched and the dynamics leaning toward the interior and even sotto voce. The three mazurkas of op. 59 were almost misty in the ephemeral quality of remembrance, no. 1 losing its way in free and wandering chromatic decoration, the lovely simplicity of no. 2 cut off enigmatically at its sudden conclusion, and no. 3 beautifully phrased. The two nocturnes of op. 27 were the most suited to Ax's approach, suffused with self-effacing melancholy and subdued sadness. Similarly, Ax performed the Barcarolle, op. 60, as a rather soft, rather gentle song, with the bel canto flourishes of the right hand all placed delicately: a minor slip in the daunting coda was quickly recovered. While the triumphant conclusion, the second scherzo (B-flat minor, op. 31), was technically more impressive, it did not approach the rapier sharpness of a player like Pollini or Kissin. Still, this mercurial performance was, like the rest of Ax's Chopin, much to be admired for its poetic eloquence: if not all of its surfaces were perfectly polished, there were interesting details to be appreciated throughout it. Two encores, equally ruminative, capped the evening: the "Des Abends" movement from Schumann's op. 12 Fantasiestücke and Chopin's grande valse brilliante (A-flat major, op. 34/1).

Other pianists featured this month by WPAS included Lambert Orkis, who performs with Anne-Sophie Mutter (November 13, 4 pm), and Jeremy Denk, who performs with the Tokyo String Quartet (November 21, 4 pm).

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