Great Pianists Week in Seattle

United StatesUnited States  Liszt: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Meany Hall, Seattle, 7.3.2012 (BJ)

United StatesUnited States  Copland, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schumann: Emanuel Ax (piano), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 11.3.2012 (BJ)

: Fantasy and Fugue in G minor
: Fantasia and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam
Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, Feux follets, Les Funérailles, Mephisto Waltz No. 1

Copland: Piano Variations
: Andante with Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6
: Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, Op. 35, “Eroica”
: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

Thanks to two important series, presented by the University of Washington and by the Seattle Symphony, the city’s audiences had the opportunity within the space of five days to hear recitals by two great American pianists, born within sixteen months of each other in the late 1940s: Garrick Ohlsson, a firm favorite at UW’s Meany Hall, offered a program devoted to Liszt, and Emanuel Ax, equally popular at Benaroya Hall, presented one devoted to variations.

In recognition of his bicentenary last year, Liszt has been much in evidence on programs around the world. I doubt whether many performances have been on the transcendental level Ohlsson’s achieved on this occasion. What the Meany Hall recital most triumphantly illuminated was the sheer breadth of Liszt’s—not to mention Ohlsson’s—expressive range.

To begin the evening, Liszt’s dedication to resuscitating and popularizing music of the past was celebrated, with an impeccably lucid performance of his arrangement of Bach’s G-minor Fantasy and Fugue. Arrangement was two- or even three-fold in the next work on the program, the half-hour-long Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam. Liszt took the theme from Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, extrapolated it into a voluminous organ work; he also produced a piano-duet version of his own original; and then Ferruccio Busoni, not to be outdone, went Liszt one pianist fewer and transformed that result freely into a solo-piano version. To my ears, this intricate and deeply introspective music sounds better, or at least clearer, on the piano than on the organ, and Ohlsson scaled its depths of meditation and its final climax of jubilation to perfection.

There was, inevitably when Liszt is on the program, a good deal of bravura in both music and performance: bravura of the more delicate variety, yet also embracing explosions of vehemence, in Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este and Feux follets, and bravura of the more extrovert kind in the first Mephisto Waltz, where the pianist’s protean touch, superbly propulsive rhythm, and penchant for brilliantly coruscating excursions at the top of the keyboard clearly held his audience spellbound. Scarcely less impressive was the delicacy of feeling and execution he brought to Les Funérailles and to his encore choice, a little Klavierstück in A-flat major dating from the composer’s later years, which highlighted this magisterial pianist’s gift for caressing the keyboard.

A similarly intimate vein is also one of the many arrows in Emanuel Ax’s artistic quiver. Ax is, supremely, a poet of the piano. So far as my own acquaintance with his gifts is concerned, he came first to my notice in 1977 when, not yet thirty, he made a recording of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata that came as a hopeful harbinger of a new era in American piano-playing. The crystalline limpidity of the performance was balm to ears that had wearied of a generation of pianists who could get around the notes of a piece with stunning velocity, but seemed not to have listened to the harsh sonorities they elicited from them.

That limpidity is still one of Ax’s signature qualities, and it came to the fore in both the more and the less expectable segments of his program. I had heard in advance some criticism of the idea of devoting a whole program to works in variation form—but after all, is that any less sensible than the quite familiar genre of programs devoted to sonatas? In any case, one could hardly find two works more dissimilar in tone and style than the Copland piece that began the program and the Haydn that followed it.

Both, in the event, were wonderfully well played. Copland’s Variations are often regarded as harsh, even hostile, music. Ax in no way shortchanged the intermittent violence of the music, but in among the big gestures came passages that revealed a poetry not often evident in its performance. The Haydn is poetry all the way through, and it was done with a surpassing grace and eloquence.

Beethoven’s E-flat-major Variations and Fugue, based on the theme that would later furnish the “Eroica” Symphony with its finale, was played with enormous zest and commendable stylistic insight, and, after intermission, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes—in a performance including three of the movements the composer omitted from the work’s initial publication—provided an ideal showcase for the full range of Ax’s powers, culminating in a spectacular romp through the “Allegro brillante” finale. A first encore in the shape of Pagodes, from Debussy’s Estampes, further confirmed his capacity for combining delicacy with depth of tone.

There were, sad to say, distractions at both recitals. At Benaroya Hall, the presence of one or more audience members with persistent coughing spoiled several passages in the music and ruined the soft ending of the Haydn work. The distraction at Meany was imposed by the management itself: the practice, instituted recently at considerable expense, of stationing a video image of the performer a few feet above his head totally undermines the intimacy of communication between pianist and public that belongs in the recital experience, even in a hall of this spacious 1,200-seat capacity. Maybe it’s possible for those sitting near the front to keep the screen out of their consciousness; but for anyone in the rows near the back, it is practically impossible not to be distracted by it. I find it hard to decide whether it is the absurdity of the idea or its vulgarity that is the more offensive.

Bernard Jacobson