Ax Offers Musical Mastery Coupled with Warm Humanity

United StatesUnited States  Brahms, Dutilleux, and Strauss: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Emanuel Ax (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 15.11.2012 (BJ)

When Emanuel Ax plays Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, any participating orchestra’s principal cellist can expect to be accorded an equal spot in the limelight. It was heartwarming at this Seattle Symphony concert to observe the pianist’s insistent inclusion of Efe Baltacigil in his acceptance of the audience’s plaudits.

Ax also followed his usual practice in presenting as an encore not a solo piece, but one that teamed the two players. The first of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces (originally for clarinet) demonstrated, as had the cello solo in the concerto’s third movement, just what a treasure the Seattle Symphony acquired when it stole Baltacigil last season from the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This might be of little more than anecdotal interest, except that it goes to illuminate the sheer humanity that characterizes Ax’s playing no less than his deportment. Rather like such celebrated colleagues as cellist Yo-Yo Ma (his regular recital partner) and violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the pianist has a way of seeming to enfold every listener in a metaphorical embrace. Now 63, he has kept his always magisterial technique in tip-top condition, but it was the warmth of understanding and the chamber-musical modesty of collaboration he brought to the concerto that gave the performance its special allure.

Under Ludovic Morlot’s baton, the orchestra provided sterling support, and then the second half of a typically ingenious Morlot program gave his players the chance to showcase their own virtuosity. With Elliott Carter’s death the other day at 103, the 96-year-old Henri Dutilleux may be said to have become the “oldest living inhabitant” in the pantheon of contemporary composers, and he fills that position with high distinction.

Begun in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, and completed in 1997, The Shadows of Time is a meditation on loss. One of Dutilleux’s most beautiful and poetic works, it makes its effect through a fascinating kind of structural indirectness. There is no recourse to traditional formal patterns. Yet, despite the absence of mere surface logic, the music achieves an expressive continuity that satisfies on a deeper, less facilely explicable level.

There are thoughtful woodwind ensembles, abrasive yet gentle in tone; flashing flights of fancy for all the higher-pitched instruments; solos for the brass (offering principal trumpet and trombone David Gordon and Ko-ichiro Yamamoto notable moments of glory); soft timpani interjections; and a labyrinthine richness in the writing for strings, which ranged up from a sort of sorrowful muttering in the double basses to airily soaring passages in the violins. There is also a short section featuring three children’s voices: their questioning protest against injustice was touchingly delivered by Benjamin Richardson, Kepler Swanson, and Andrew Torgelson, still in their early teens, but already experienced performers.

All in all, The Shadows of Time” amply justified its place on the program beside a well-established orchestral showpiece, the Strauss tone poem whose title reads in full, Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks, after an old rogue’s tale, set for full orchestra in rondo form. With “pure” musical form and illustrative connotations held in perfect equilibrium, the delightfully picaresque result ended the evening in bravura fashion, clarinetists Christopher Sereque and – at the moment when Till gets his comeuppance – Laura DeLuca supplying particularly trenchant contributions.


Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.