Yet another celebrity visited the city under the auspices of Boston’s Celebrity Series, underlining further still the aptness of that organization’s name. Emanuel Ax, the seasoned pianist of international acclaim, played in Jordan Hall Friday evening, January 8, before a capacity audience. Fantasies of Chopin and Schumann afforded uncommon opportunity for delving into some of music’s freest—not to mention, challenging—twists.
Unfortunately, from the very start of the concert, a film of reverberation coated the surface of the sound, dulling any shine that might otherwise have been present in the performance. Quieter, slower and higher treble passages often were exceptions, though, for example, Mazurka in C Major, Opus 24, no. 2, which Ax conveyed completely unencumbered. The same held true in large part for his encore, Chopin’s brooding then sunshiny Waltz in A minor, op. 34.
Through the haze, fortunately, much of Ax’s extraordinary pianism emerged, both technique and endurance meeting the formidable demands of the fantasies. This is no mean feat, remembering these compositions came from the hands of two of the most touted pianists in all of history: Chopin, who left Parisians in awe at salon soirées, and Schumann, who was bent on acquiring super technique in Leipzig with the use of an odd invention that left him “nine-fingered,” taking him out any possible run for super pianist.
Certainly, Ax’s sheer pianism became evermore spellbinding during the concert, which included Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Opus 61 and Andante Spianato and Grande polonaise, Opus 22 along with Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Opus 12 and Phantasie in C Major, Opus 17. It is hard to imagine finding all four of these big, free-roaming monsters-to-play sharing the same program. Taking his final bows on the Jordan Hall stage, Ax did seem a bit tired after it was all over.
Beyond the obvious, a clue from the page in the program booklet listing the pieces to be played and in what order had me once again thinking about the revered concert performer’s take on music, and, in particular, personalities he might confer on these Chopin and Schumann twists of fantasy. No English appeared on the page, only French and German. Could this possibly be a clue to personalities, Emanuel Ax’s as well? What I saw and, more importantly, heard, might be described as an utterly deep penetration of equilibrium by the esteemed pianist.
Grande polonaise is resplendent with fantastic interventions such as grace notes or tiny-sized dots in the score assigned particular pitches but not timings. Ax tempered these interventions, reining them into statements that, on the one hand, were brave because of a resolute commitment to a performance ideal, and, on the other hand, wearing because of a more confined range of expression.
On a broader level, Ax opted for plateaus of phrasing as well as planned routes of climaxing and cadencing. To be certain, the aspect of the dynamic clearly exists in his concept of performance, an aspect he internalizes. His quick tempo taken for Andante Spianato spun out left-hand arpeggios as vibrating harmonies at once mesmerizingly atmospheric and immobile. Spianato meaning “smooth” or “even,” might be a clue to his delivery.
Equilibrated psychological play in Schumann’s two fantasies drew on artistic play. Ax’s insights into the composer’s penchant for echoing melodic motives kept dialogue to formalized intonation. Ax articulated melody such as that unforgettable one from Des Abends (Evenings) from the Phantasiestücke with simplicity. His version of Aufschwung (Soaring) also engendered equilibrium through action rather than the emotive.
Mazurka in C minor, Opus 56, no. 3 and Four Mazurkas, Opus 41 completed the program. It was his choice of these Chopin pieces and, especially, his finding an ideal contrast in the pairing of the peasant-like C major and the erudite C minor that again further illuminated Ax’s own personality.