Mozart and Bruckner:Lightness and Heaviness

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Bruckner: Emanuel Ax (piano), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor), Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center 24.4.2013 (SSM)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K.503
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1873, rev. 1874, 1876-1877, 1878 and 1888/89; ed. L. Nowak, 1959)

Alan Gilbert in his notes on this program uses three adjectives that precisely describe Emanuel Ax’s playing: lightness, elegance and warmth. Whether he is doing Mozart, Chopin or Samuel Barber, he never pounds, never throws himself about, never overly gesticulates. His playing could be seen as emotionally detached and his touch on the keys verging on detaché, but this is not the case. A great pianist can coax fortes from a keyboard without hammering the keys. Here Ax’s light touch brought out the element of silence in Mozart’s music: the music or non-music that exists between notes. Not that Ax ignored the legato markings in the score, but this was legato played on its edge.

Ax’s lyrical playing matches the concerto itself, a work rife with melodies. The opening fanfare gives way to a long exposition before the piano enters about three minutes into the work; when it does, a new theme opens. The piano eventually picks up and repeats the main theme and the secondary theme, often called the “Marseilles” motif. This eight-note motif becomes the elemental structure that weaves in and out of the concerto in every way possible. The rhythmic first five notes are repeated at every turn: played outright, chopped off, repeated over and over in the forefront and background. The cadenza by Alfred Brendel (no Mozart cadenza exists) has become the common one, and Ax played it with gracious dignity.

In contrast to the middle movements of many other concerti piano concerti, the second movement is relatively upbeat, without the frequent changes in modulation that are the central elements of more heartfelt ones. Much of the writing is for woodwinds and horns which places it in the realm of Mozart’s more rustic works like his divertimenti. The slightly faster than usual tempo was not at all inappropriate. Although the third movement is listed as an Allegretto, it has the feeling of a rondo. The main theme is repeated after a new theme is played and, in rondo style, this is done twice.

This performance was about as good as it gets.

With Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 we are in an entirely different world. It’s hard to get a handle on most Bruckner symphonies, difficult to compare performances when there are so many versions. Even if we were to compare Leopold Nowak’s editions of No. 3, we would have to ask which Bruckner version we are we listening to: the 1873 or the 1889? Gilbert chose the 1889 version “convinced that [this is] the one that finally satisfied him.” Is there a big difference between these two? If one looks at the timings, for example, Gilbert finished the piece in just under an hour. George Tintner in his recording of the 1873 version runs seventy-seven minutes. It would take a dedicated Brucknerian to be able to compare the seventeen or so versions of his nine-plus symphonies, let alone discern one from another. Bruckner was so insecure that he felt anyone who was willing to “correct” his symphonies could do so better than the composer himself. In terms of manuscripts, scholars have found at least nine versions of No. 3 in various draft stages.

Gilbert did a superb job of controlling this monster, and only a few times did it seem that he went too far with the massive crescendos. The symphony has some upbeat, less tortured music that is lacking in the later symphonies, and Gilbert presented the quieter moments of lyrical sweetness quite effectively. The brass players, so important to all of Bruckner’s symphonies, pierced through the massive musical clusters with a spiking elan. The whole orchestra is to be congratulated on a dynamic performance.

Stan Metzger