Have you ever floated over the Interstate in a 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville? Ever indulged in too much prime ribeye?
Emanuel Ax gave an early-Beethoven recital recently, for posting online as part of the Tanglewood Online 2020 season. It is up until July 18th. If you are a piano maven, I think it important that you audition this event. For it is playing like nothing you have ever heard or witnessed before, I wager, and possibly more polished than any other’s keyboard production in history. To my knowledge there has never been piano performance more beautiful, cushier, richer … never before another of such tone and evenness and roundness.
Emanuel Ax is simply superhuman in these respects.
Hats off, too, to the technicians who captured the recital for us with such warmth of tone and lighting.
Beethoven wrote his two Opus 2 piano sonatas in the mid-1790s, dedicating them, naturally, to his teacher Haydn. They are cranky wonders, not short. A half-century ago it was sometimes pointed out that young man Beethoven was a comparatively unknown composer, a fiery piano prodigy who wrote the most startling, imaginative, ear-opening of music. Sly, and gently (sometimes not) prickly. Now he is recognized and understood.
Ax does not identify or convey that composer. The playing is hypnotic, at least for me: thoughtless, undercharacterized, driven in an undriven way, shaping and shapely like spandex. Its gorgeous, rich, technically perfect sound, music by Steinway, makes me lose my bearings, as I did 40 years ago with Ax’s first Chopin recordings. Dynamically, it is not all one mf-f level, though it seems so, and even the soft parts sound too loud. Fullness of touch does that. One wonders at the unrelieved lushness.
The minor mode middle of Opus 2 No. 2’s closing rondo featured actually bad playing, perfectly done as ever, but also meaningless, a display of unrelenting quality.
Fur Elise, that bagatelle from Beethoven at 40 which everyone learns, is also unspeakably lovely. Tell the next student you see to play it exactly like Ax, only please not as well.
The generous David Dubal has advised that Ax needs “a dash of astringency.” The great classical encyclopædist Ted Libbey has written that Ax tends “to deliver what the Russians, in the old days, would have called ‘cosmopolitan’ interpretations, i.e., meticulously polished and craftsmanlike, but lacking in individuality.” When Ax first appeared, I excitedly asked a piano critic whom I had studied with at one of those Music Critics Association summer fellowships what he thought, and he replied that it seemed chiefly “porridge.” A decade or more later, after Ax’s career had become a huge international success, I ribbed him about his reductive quip. He replied, “Oh, sure, now it’s golden porridge.”
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.