Stylish Eloquence in a Week with Emanuel Ax

United StatesUnited States Martinů, Mozart, and Schumann: Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, Emanuel Ax (piano), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 6.3.2015 (BJ)

Martinů: Three Madrigals, H. 313 Juliette Kang (violin) and Che-Hung Chen (viola)
Mozart: Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452  Ax (piano), Peter Smith (oboe), Samuel Cavaziel (clarinet), Jennifer Montone (horn), and Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon)
Schumann: Piano Quintet, Op. 44  Ax (piano), Yayoi Numazawa and Daniel Han (violins), David Nicastro (viola), and Ohad Bar-David (cello)

United StatesUnited States  Haydn, Beethoven, and Vaughan Williams: Emanuel Ax (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor),  Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 7.3.2015 (BJ)


Haydn: Symphony No. 92 in G major, “Oxford”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor


In the ordinary way, when a pianist comes to town to play a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the public has a chance to appreciate his or her talent (or not!) in just one style of music. But by coordinating with the orchestra to interleave a chamber concert among Emanuel Ax’s three performances of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, the always enterprising Philadelphia Chamber Music Society gave this wonderful musician a chance to shine also as an interpreter of Mozart and Schumann.

 From every point of view, the result could not have been happier. Ax is playing these days better than ever. The most remarkable thing about his interpretations of all three composers was the way they succeeded in singing and at the same time in speaking. The latter is a characteristic more often associated with baroque music than with the Austro-German classical repertoire—witness Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s book titled Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech—but it yielded in these performances a quite superb brand of stylish eloquence.

 Ax was partnered in Mozart and Schumann by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the teamwork between him and two outstanding groups of principal, associate principal, and rank-and-file players made very clear how little difference of quality—if indeed any such difference may be said to exist—between those positions in an orchestra of the Philadelphia’s standard of technique and expression. A further case in point was provided by Juliette Kang’s and Che-Hung Chen’s spirited playing of the delightful Three Madrigals that opened the chamber program. And the observation of the exposition repeats in the first movements of the two quintets served to emphasize the stature and fine proportions that mark both works.

 n addition to these purely musical qualities, there was a more circumstantial benefit attaching to the chamber concert. The 650-seat Perelman Theater where most of the PCMS’s concerts are played being unavailable on March 6 because of a scheduling clash, Ax and his colleagues had to play in the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall. But if they had any fear that they might find themselves facing a largely empty hall, any such idea was blown away by the presence of the largest audience that has ever attended a PCMS concert in the organization’s 29 seasons. And it is reasonable to assume that quite a number of the nearly 1,400 persons in the seats that evening are likely to have been first-time patrons. Given that very nearly half of the Society’s presentations in the current season are selling out, and that a reasonable proportion of those first-timers may be expected to return, there will probably be even more pressure in future on the capacity of Perelman and of the other smaller halls better suited than Verizon for the intimacy of chamber music that PCMS uses. A problem, perhaps, but the sort of problem many concert presenters would surely pray to find themselves facing.

 At the orchestra concert that I attended the following evening, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 received a performance worthy to stand with other outstanding ones I have heard in this and other halls, such as one here with Claudio Arrau as soloist, and a remarkable one in London by Rudolf Serkin. Music director Nézet-Séguin drew immaculate and pulsingly expressive playing from the orchestra: the perfect tuning of some exposed unison phrases from the horns in the slow movement may serve as just one example of the polish and artistry that prevailed throughout.

 Though rather less generous with repeats than the quintet performances the day before, Nézet-Séguin’s account of Haydn’s witty and graceful “Oxford” Symphony made a stylish beginning for the concert. The evening ended in very different vein: composed more than 80 years ago, surely under the shadow of the gruesome events that were pushing Europe toward the outbreak of World War II, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony was receiving a long overdue first Philadelphia Orchestra performance. It is a work of positively terrifying intensity, more uncompromising even than the composer’s Sixth Symphony, begun during the actual time of the conflict, and worlds distant in manner and meaning from the Pilgrim’s-Progress-related Fifth Symphony that came as healing balm when it was premiered in 1943 at the height of the war.

 It was, I think, about the Fourth Symphony that Vaughan Williams remarked, “I don’t know whether I like it, but it is what I meant.” Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra proved themselves fully equal to the challenge of the highly dissonant and rhythmically complex faster movements. But it was the naturalness with which the Andante moderato’s subtly proliferating polyphonic textures unfolded, and the poignant beauty to which the movement gradually rose, that stayed most vividly in my mind after this magnificent concert ended.

Bernard Jacobson

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