Though Emmanuel Ax has performed many times for the Celebrity Series through the years, as an accompanist, a chamber musician, and as a soloist, Sunday’s sold-out Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall must surely mark one of his finest, perfectly marrying artist and repertoire. Ax played Beethoven with the assurance and facility that come of long acquaintance while communicating emotion and musical line with a freshness that conveyed all of the master’s range and grandeur.
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, Pathetique opened very operatic dialogue between the upper and lower voices. The quite stormy Allegro di molto e con brio still had a lightness that hinted of Mozart. The second movement, Adagio cantabile is one of the noblest lullabies ever written. In this performance it was more allegretto, but still sweet and heartfelt.
Six Variations on a Theme in F Major, Op. 34 evoked a gifted composer’s reward to a superb student for hours of practicing scales in octaves and endless trills. The first variation put dreamy delicate filigree to delightful decorative use. The movements progressed from a hunter’s call, to a horror movie soundtrack full of menace, a waltz, to a quiet, solemn chorale. In this tour-de-force of emotion, Ax displayed technical agility in abundance.
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1 opens with a rhythmic quip that elevates a simple three-chord statement to genius. Instead of playing both hands simultaneously, there is a delay between the arrival of the right and left hand, creating a bit of a phase shift. It must have been astonishing when premiered. The second movement seemed an almost improvised lovely little tune; knowing how tortured Beethoven’s compositional process was, this fluidity owes as much to Ax’s grace as to the hard-won spontaneity of the melody.
After intermission, Ax played the Polonaise in C Major, Op. 89. Written on commission for the Empress of Russia, this work is one of only two polonaises from the composer. Ax found delightful sweetness and nostalgia.
True to its nickname, the closer, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, op. 57, Appassionata, is a bear technically. Ax’s earlier fire and brilliance rose to volcanic in heat and power. His fingers were a blur, and the sound seemed to emanate from somewhere else, not just the piano. His melodic lines had a creamy quality, no percussive edge, just pure music. The tempo in the coda went breathtakingly fast, and the packed crowd leapt to its collective feet with a roar.
Numerous curtain calls led to a short encore, the introspective and very emotional Schubert song “The Miller and the Brook.” An augmented interval gave it an Eastern European folk quality, slipping from minor to major and back again.
Ax is a master of his craft and his instrument, yet his manner is warm and unpretentious. An artist of the first water, he gave those present the gift of a lifetime.