Emanuel Ax Presents a Diversity of Variations

United StatesUnited States Copland, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann: Emanuel Ax, Carnegie Hall, New York, 17.5.2012 (SSM)

Copland: Piano Variations
Haydn: Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII:6
Beethoven: Fifteen Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme in E-Flat Major, “Eroica Variations,” Op. 35
Schumann: Études en forme de variations, Op. 13 (with posthumous etudes)

Variations upon a theme informed Emanuel Ax’s choice of works for this recital at Carnegie Hall. A variation itself is really no more than a formal numbered structure that is the basis of music. From early music on, the idea of playing a theme and then varying it runs through forms like chaconnes, fandangos, dance movements, fugues, the sonata with its development section and cadenzas with their improvised riffs. In fact, the most basic of any musical form would be A-B or, in da capo form, A-A-B-B, “B” being a variation on “A.”

Composers have written variations from the most simplistic (e.g. Mozart’s keyboard variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman” or “Twinkle, Twinkle”) to those great monuments of keyboard music, Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. In most variations the theme is apparent in every movement; in rare instances they are not audibly recognizable (as in Bach’s Goldberg Variations where only the formal pattern A-A-B-B and harmonic infrastructure of the theme connect the individual variations).

In Copland’s Variations for Piano, the five-note opening, while varied in numerous ways, would be difficult to break down formally into numbered movements. The notes that form the motif are handled as if they were a shortened Schoenbergian twelve-tone scale. It was clear that Ax was attempting to perform this work as a lyrical, tonal composition, making even the parallel seconds and ninths seem normal. He respected Copland’s sometimes odd expressive requests, such as “threatening” in reference to a run of arpeggios or “simply, naively” to a group of chords. The poetic approach Ax took here with Copland was applied to all the other pieces which followed in the program. If the audience expected a flashy, virtuosic recital like many others in this series, they didn’t get it from Ax. His playing was not the type to draw attention to itself: the piano was never pounded, and he never made manifest the fact that there were passages that required substantial prowess.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor were played with a very gentle touch, the volume barely rising except in a few passages marked forte. Even the excellent acoustics of Carnegie Hall could not help this performance which would have been better suited to a much smaller venue. If I were asked to give brief description of the interpretation, it would be “small sounding.”

Ax’s take on Beethoven’s “Eroica” variations was also small-voiced, and not until the fugal variation did it sing out loudly. These variations lack the wildly imaginative quality of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and in no way do they approach their later orchestral counterpart, the last movement of Beethoven’s Third “Eroica” Symphony. Although some of the variations are nearly the same in both works, the piano version wants for the instrumental color inherent in an orchestra. Ax’s performance perhaps tried too hard to find the soul of this work. He would have been more successful emphasizing differences in dynamics and tempo between variations rather than searching for a musical depth that isn’t there.

Schumann’s Symphonic Variations were given a more sensitive and lyrical reading than the muscular versions one hears in recordings by Pollini, Richter and Horowitz. When a work as demanding as this is chosen as part of a recital, you can be sure that it will be used to showcase a performer’s ability to handle the work’s massive chords and challenges. The “Agitato,” “Presto possible” and Allegro brillante” all require formidable technique. Ax has all this ability but, as in the other works on the program, he chose to let the music speak for itself. The result was a fluid, romantic interpretation more suited to Chopin’s works.

Ax’s first encore was Liszt’s Valse Oubliée, No.1, which he played with panache. The Chopin that followed, the Grand Valse Brillante, took me back to the first time I heard him perform. Ax had just won the Artur Rubenstein International Piano Competition, and recorded an all-Chopin program for RCA. It was one of those LPs that I played so often it was eventually scratched beyond playability. Elements of Ax’s performance on that record were still apparent in this recital.


Stan Metzger