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Friday, May 18, 2012

Concert Review: Seasonal Migrations, Daily Variations

An evening of piano variations at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
The fierce concentration of Emanuel Ax. Photo © 2011 Newton Classics.
On Thursday night, the pianist Emanuel Ax gave an unusual program at Carnegie Hall, focused exclusively on the art of the piano variation. Mr. Ax chose works by Copland, Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann to look at the idea of theme and variations from different historical perspectives.

The concert opened with Copland's 1930 Piano Variations. Built from a series of dissonant intervaled chords, Copland's composition is a long way from his later, audience-friendly styles. Mr. Ax produced open chords that hung, slab-like in the air, alternating with difficult descending intervals as he explored the unique sound-world of this piece.

The Haydn Variations in F minor were cut from a more genteel cloth, a slow, sad Andante that stands in contrast to this composer's penchant for breezy melody. A second, major-key theme provided contrast, with Mr. Ax navigating the alternating keys with a firm hand and a sense of melodic flow.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony (the 'Eroica') is a titan of the orchestral repertory, with a last movement built as a set of variations on a simple figured bass. That theme was originally written for the composer's ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus. That same theme formed the basis of the Theme and Variations in E♭ before being incorporated into the Third Symphony. Because of that work's popularity, the piece is known as the Eroica Variations.

This set of variations finds Beethoven taking that bass theme to its logical extremes, reworking it as a bright and perky match, a grim slow movement, and that jaw-dropping fugue where Beethoven shows his stunning mastery of the art of keyboard counterpoint. Mr. Ax navigated all of these pitfalls without flaw, driving the theme forward with his shoulders and playing Beethoven in a muscular, cheerful style that sparkled with vitality. Most impressive of all was that fugue, where Beethoven used that archaic form as a jackhammer to break new musical ground.

Robert Schumann's Symphonic Etudes is a massive 35-minute piano workout that finds the composer applying all of the techniques developed in the decade that he spent focused exclusively on piano music. The work is also a charted journey from darkness into light, starting with a dour funeral march and ending as a triumph over adversity.

Schumann's path to redemption is walked by playing variations on that original funeral march, some of them slow and contemplative, others brimming with the fire and fierce idealism that makes Schumann one of the most popular early Romantics. Mr. Ax showed tremendous technical skill in these works, whether crossing hands to play a tricky pattern of notes or careening down the keyboard in the more florid passages.

For this performance, Mr. Ax chose three works from a posthumous set of Etudes that were salvaged from Schumann's papers by his friend and protegé Johannes Brahms. These works are more reflective than the earlier Etudes, and serve as contemplative rest stops on the long uphil journey. The summit and final variation finds Schumann turning to a theme from a now-obscure opera, Marschner's Der Templer und die Judin, transforming it into a heroic carillon that celebrates the final transformation of the original theme into a triumph over adversity.

After this tremendous cascade of variations, this writer half-expected the two encores to consist of the opening waltz from Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and the "Aria" from J.S. Bach's Goldbergs. Instead, Mr. Ax offered an engaging pair of Romantic waltzes: Franz Liszt's dreamy Valse oubliée No. 1 and Chopin's robust, beloved Grand Waltz in E♭.

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