By Caldwell Titcomb
Jordan Hall in Boston was filled to capacity for the January 8 Celebrity Series recital by pianist Emanuel Ax. Now 60 years old, he has long harbored a reputation as a serious and thoughtful musician.
Bowing to this year’s bicentennial of the births of both Chopin and Schumann, Ax devoted his entire program to works by these two 19th-century giants. There were two sizable pieces by each composer. As is his wont, Ax avoided the slap-dash banging of Vladimir Horowitz; there was no harsh playing all evening. We are told that Chopin himself almost never exceeded a mezzoforte dynamic in performing his own music.
Ax began with Chopin’s “Polonaise-fantasie in A-flat Major,” Op. 61. Lasting a quarter hour, the piece begins improvisatorily and moves into a more dance-derived music that is unusual in its changes of key. He ended with another piece the same length, Chopin’s “Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise,” Op. 22. (The unusual second word means “even” or “level.”) The opening section leads into a bouncy second half. Ax imbued both works with tasteful restraint.
Schumann’s “Phantasie in C-Major,” Op. 17, closed the first half. This is actually a three-movement sonata lasting more than a half hour, and is one of the greatest masterpieces in the whole solo piano repertory. The passionate first movement came out of a bleak period in the composer’s life, when he was forbidden contact with his beloved by her father (she would eventually become his wife). It ends by quoting a few bars from Beethoven’s song-cycle “To the distant beloved.”
The middle movement, written a good deal later, is grand and triumphant music written in Beethoven’s “heroic” key of E-flat major. Here Ax’s customary restraint did not suit the mood. Schumann marked the movement “Energetically throughout,” and Ax simply couldn’t summon up the needed oomph. The presto coda, with all its technically treacherous leaps, defeats most pianists – and Ax was no exception. He was back in fine form, however, for the slow, dreamy and mostly soft finale.
After intermission Ax gave us the other big Schumann work, the “Phantasiestücke,” Op. 12, running nearly thirty minutes. This is a set of eight pieces with programmatic titles. In mood and style they are highly differentiated, and Ax captured their individuality admirably, though for some reason he omitted a couple of repeats.
Filling out the program were a half dozen mazurkas selected from the nearly sixty that Chopin wrote intermittently between 1825 and 1849. The C-major, Op. 24, No. 2, runs a mere two minutes, while the C-minor, Op. 56, No. 3, takes seven. Ax nicely caught the spirit of these Polish miniatures (he is himself of Polish descent). The enthusiastic reception coaxed him to the piano for an encore, Chopin’s well-known waltz in A-minor, Op. 34, No. 2, neatly done.