Complexity Without Sentimentality From Ax

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Chopin: Emanuel Ax (piano), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 22.1.2017. (HS)

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935 (Op. 142); Klavierstücke No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 946

Chopin: Impromptus: No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29; No. 2 in F-sharp Major, Op. 36; No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 51; Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor,Op. 66; Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58

No denying it, pianist Emanuel Ax articulates the most complex music with precise technique and warmth, and he can do it without dipping into sentimentality. These positives were on display in a nicely conceived solo program at Zellerbach Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.

All Schubert and Chopin, two giants of 19th-century classical piano, the program began with four impromptus from each composer. In the second half, a short Schubert work preceded Chopin’s big, exuberant Sonata No. 3 in B minor.

Ax’s playing was so polished that it took a while for me to figure out what kept it short of the transcendency this music can achieve. Schubert’s first three impromptus are relatively gentle works, relying on simplicity and lucid expressiveness to make their points. On this day, however, Ax didn’t hit the mark until he got to the swirling passagework and complex countermelodies in No. 4. The more he had to corral, the better he got.

Throughout, Ax favored relatively quick tempos, which kept the first three sonatas from singing as touchingly as the composer intended. But in No. 4, the fast pace showed off his command of both the instrument and the torrents of notes. The swarm came together into a coherent narrative, and it brought the set to an invigorating close.

Interpreting Chopin, Ax favored briskness and precision. Rapid-fire phrases were strung together like pearls on an endless necklace, riding over and through the sweep of denser sections. The clarity was impressive in three Chopin Impromptus, even if it kept the composer’s passion and fire from exploding as it can. Once again, it was the power and expressiveness of the multi-faceted Fantaisie-Impromptu that closed the first half, which finally gripped this listener.

The second half heralded a more relaxed approach to the soaring melody in Schubert’s Klavierstücke No. 2. The contrasting sections held a taut mystery that framed the singing sections beautifully.

For a composer best known for études, scherzos, polonaises and nocturnes of shorter duration, the Chopin sonata is a sprawling work. Its unusual B-minor key preceded Liszt’s towering sonatas in the same key by eight years. Unlike the Hungarian composer’s free-wheeling form, Chopin’s signature moments of singing melody, filigreed with pianistic flourishes, fit into a standard four-movement framework.

In the Allegro maestoso opening movement, Ax brought out the rich resonance of the key’s colors, holding back a bit on the flourishes. The Scherzo energized the performance, sprinting in the opening pages and barely easing up on the glittering passagework surrounding the left-hand song at the center.

The sonorous Largo’s eloquence was beautifully drawn, contrasting with the surrounding movements, especially when the finale took off at a lightning pace and never flagged. If the climaxes held back a little, the result was a performance of elegance.

For an encore, Ax gave Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2, which starts off dreamy, as with most nocturnes, before gaining more and more agitation until it finally recedes into a soft finish. It was a perfect summation of his approach for the day.

A lighthearted moment preceded it, though. Hesitating for a moment at the piano bench as if contemplating what to play, a voice called from the audience, “Taking requests?” Ax smiled, turned to the source of the question. “Bartók,” said the voice. Ax chuckled, and a cacophony of other requests ensued from other voices.

“All I can think of right now is ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he laughed, as he took a breath, and launched into the nocturne. After accepting applause for that, he sat down for a second encore, playing Mozart’s short statement of the theme in his famous variations. He got up, smiled, and left the stage as the lights came up.

Harvey Steiman

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