Emmanuel Ax Offers Clarity, Precision and Refinement

United StatesUnited States  Bizet, Rameau, Debussy, Chopin: Emmanuel Ax (piano), presented by San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.1.2015 (HS)

Bizet: Variations Chromatiques de concert
Rameau: Pièces de clavecin
Debussy: Les Estampes
Debussy: Hommage à Rameau
Debussy: L’Isle joyeuse
Chopin: Four Scherzos

Emmanuel Ax is an elegant pianist. In his recital Sunday night in Davies Symphony Hall, he clearly preferred understatement to bluster, minimizing his own imprint on a program that offered a wide range, from the familiar to the less so. The first half traversed two-and-a-half centuries of French music; the second consisted of all four Chopin Scherzos.

If these performances lacked that last few ounces of juice to make them scintillating, they were remarkable for their clarity, precision and refinement. The pianist deployed his virtuosity to execute the music carefully, even in Debussy’s and Chopin’s most demanding passages.

Take Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2. Most pianists aim for maximum drama in the B minor opening, emphasizing contrasts between thundering chords and the wisp of a recurring rising gesture. Ax played those soft notes, marked pianissimo, at mezzo-piano, maybe even mezzo-forte at times. Did he simply want it to be heard in the 3,000-seat hall, or was it a conscious choice to tone down the drama? Through the entire concert, the relatively gentle tone of Ax’s interpretations argued for the latter.

On the other hand, Ax brought out details with remarkable ease. As that Scherzo No. 2 moved into its full opening statement, the arpeggios in the left hand floated like a cloud around the main tune.

Ax also showed a dazzling ability to articulate individual facets of dense musical gestures where many pianists simply produce a wash of color. In Debussy’s Estampes, for example, I could sense every individual drop of falling rain in the final piece, “Les jardins sou la pluie,” represented by subtly stuttering, wide arpeggios in asymmetrical groups of 5 and 6 that billowed like silk.

A French music tour in the first half began with a rarity. Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques de concert explores fairly simple ascending and descending chromatic scales, offered first in imposing octaves before the 14 variations intersperse lovely bel canto-like moments among sections of grand virtuosity. It’s almost as if Bizet were improvising as he went. Ax’s lyrical moments were more beguiling than the noisier passages.

If Rameau has emerged as the Baroque composer of the moment, largely because of his operas, the charming Suite in G Major ably represents the quirky charm of the keyboard works that made his reputation. Ax’s sense of restraint here made for one long smile, punctuated by a spiky little impression of a hen in the fourth movement Allegro.

The Debussy set that concluded the first half centered, appropriately, around the composer’s early 20th-century Hommage à Rameau, a gentle sort of sarabande that moved with serenity under Ax’s graceful touch. The pianist finished with the overtly pictorial L’Isle joyeuse. I’ve heard more thrilling performances, but Ax’s was admirable in bringing out the little telling details around the grand gestures.

Of the Chopin Scherzos, the most compelling was the intellectually complex No. 4 in E Major. With less athleticism required, Ax burrowed into the internal connections between the elegance of the outer sections and the nocturnal ruminations in the middle.

For his lone encore, Ax offered a simple, unaffected take on the bittersweet reflections of Chopin’s Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2.

Harvey Steiman

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