Ax and Frank Show Mozart’s Beauty and Brilliance

10/03/2016

Mozart: Emanuel Ax (piano), Pamela Frank (violin), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 8.3.2016 (BJ)

Mozart: Violin Sonatas (C major, K. 396; F major, K. 377; G major, K. 379; B flat major, K. 454)

So beguiling is the ostensibly effortless fluency of his pianism, one is tempted to imagine that Emanuel Ax has only to shake a sleeve at the keyboard and a stream of opalescent tone and perfectly shaped phrases will cascade forth. It must have been back in the 1970s that I first encountered his artistry, reviewing a performance of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata that was, I think, his first recording, and that appeared (sadly to disappear subsequently from the catalogues) as a salutary refreshment at a time when many American pianists tended to produce an unpleasantly harsh and metallic tone. The results have only taken on added depth and intensity over the years, and they served, at his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital with Pamela Frank, to emphasize the beauty and brilliance of a body of Mozart’s oeuvre that is heard too infrequently in live performance.

K.454 in particular, the B-flat-major sonata that is the best known of the four works on the program, belongs in what is probably the most densely packed series of established masterpieces in the Mozart canon: of the thirteen works with Köchel numbers running from 447 to 459, all but one—the little set of variations on Unser dummer Pöbel meint—occupy firm places in the standard repertoire. But these two superb players made a no less convincing case for the other three sonatas they offered us.

If I accord prime position in this review to Ax, that is in no way out of disrespect for Pamela Frank, whose sweet tone and elegant phrasing made a welcome return to the concert platform just four years ago after a decade’s absence due to nerve damage in her arm, and whose playing on this occasion betrayed not the slightest departure from her previously familiar stellar quality. Rather, my priorities stem from the nature of the sonatas Mozart was writing in the 1770s and 1780s: K. 377 and K. 379 were published as “Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Piano with the accompaniment of a Violin,” and it was one of the virtues of these performances that they balanced the two instruments with due prominence for the piano.

Tempos, though often on the fast side in outer movements and in the variation finale of K. 379, never detracted from the musical effect of the sonatas. And Ax’s playing of the many embellishments in the piano part succeeded brilliantly in making them sound not like mere decoration but like true engines driving the music forward. He and Ms. Frank rewarded a warm ovation at the end of the program with an encore in the shape of the first movement of Bach’s Sonata in C minor, BWV 1017, which—interestingly—sounded in this graceful performance by far the most romantic music we had heard all evening.

Bernard Jacobson

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