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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Concert Review: The Mechanics of the Heart

Emanuel Ax plays Beethoven at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Emanuel Ax and friend. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco for Sony Classical.
There is something beatific about Emanuel Ax. He is a familiar figure on the concert stages of New York, gray haired, bespectacled and often beaming at his applauding audience.  And yet, behind that façade is a fiery artist, capable of great interpretations of standard repertory, offering insight on well-loved works. On Wednesday night, Mr. Ax offered a program of works by Ludwig van Beethoven at Carnegie Hall.

The concert offered a unique perspective, using two very familiar piano sonatas (No. 8, the Pathétique and No. 23, the Appassionata to sandwich three less familiar Beethoven works: a set of Variations on an Original Theme, a Polonaise and the Op. 31 No. 1 sonata (No. 16) a work which saw Beethoven throw out the rule book of classicism and create something both genuine and new for the piano.

The Pathétique opens with a set of sonorous chords, gradually broken up and used to launch the main Allegro. Mr. Ax added rests here, underlining the significance of those chords before launching into the downward glissando and slow climb back up that serves as prelude to the main thematic subject. Here, he played with speed and power, driving from his shoulders to propel the movement forward with an urgent thrust. The lyric slow movement, with its famous canon-like theme serving a deep breath before the quick finger-dance of the last movement.

The Six Variations that came next are from 1802, written around the time of Beethoven's more famous "Eroica" Variations and the sonata that was to follow. Mr. Ax played this set with a dream-like quality in the flow of notes and the playful march rhythm that Beethoven allowed to crop up later in the set. Other variations included a chiming minor melody that sounded like some sort of late night clock-work and a variation that started with the same downward interval as the opening of the Pathétique.

Next came the Op. 31 No. 1, a sonata where Beethoven's unique instrumental sense and particular humor hold sway throughout. The sonata seems to stutter at first, with the hands giving the illusion that the pianist has forgotten how to make them play together. Finally the stuttering stops, with the pianist contrasting between the rhythm in his left hand and a series of down-the-keyboard runs that grow more and more elaborate as the movement develops. Mr. Ax' pianism was sterling here, as he played the difficult runs in a way that seemed effortless but clearly wasn't.

The central Adagio Grazioso continued the argument between the hands, as thematic fragments played over a marching figure in the left hand that seemed to mock the right's efforts. The finale seemed like a parody of Beethoven's former teacher Haydn, with its graceful theme strutting forth for the listener before being put through an obstacle course of variations which increased in complexity and fluctuated in tempo.

The Polonaise is a minor Beethoven work, written for some diplomatic function during the Congress of Vienna and rarely performed. Mr. Ax gave it some legitimacy with its wistful rhythms and hard-charging dance theme. The Appassionata sonata followed, with its suggestion of the "fate" theme from the Fifth Symphony and marathon last movement. Here, Mr. Ax's playing moved toward the clinical and even academic, a performance that was probing and ultimately, revealing. Following the enthusiasm of the audience, he obliged with a Schubert encore: a transcription of "Der Müller und der Bach" from Die Schöne Müllerin., This too was well-received by the audience members that stayed.

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