Thursday, April 28, 2022
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Guest Reviewer, David M. Rice
Unlike recital programs that show-off a performer’s mastery of wide-ranging styles and repertory, Emanuel Ax took this occasion to focus on the last five years (1842-1846; he died in 1849) of Chopin’s compositions.
He began with Opus 55’s pair of Nocturnes, both taken slowly and steadily with many delicate trills offsetting the melodies. The dreamy atmosphere continued into the Polonaise-fantaisie, until a wake-up call came as a left-hand drumbeat ushered in the polonaise theme, with Ax masterfully negotiating its complex development and often dense textures.
Opus 56, the culmination of Chopin’s lifelong fascination with the Mazurka – he wrote nearly sixty – offered a variety of moods. The recurring theme of the first, B-major, exuded folk-like charm as Ax maintained a lively beat beneath the melody. The second, in C, brought swirling figures in the treble above a droning accompaniment, and then he gave the opening of the C-minor an enticing air of mystery.
The Barcarolle lived up to its title; one could almost feel a boat rocking. In the E-major Nocturne, the second of Opus 62, the sweet principal melody, accented by glistening runs in the right-hand, bookended a dense central section in which Ax distinguished its agitato marking. The recital’s first half ended with the last of the four Scherzos. Ax established a light and airy atmosphere in the opening measures and, come the conclusion, brought much dramatic power to the coda, building to a glorious finish.
Following intermission, the Berceuse, which Ax played as a true lullaby, left-hand figures portraying a swaying cradle as its counterpart voiced sparkling roulades and trills. Unlike the aptly named Berceuse, the G-flat Impromptu does not live up to its title, being anything but off-the-cuff. Ax brought out the delicacy of the ornamentation in the outer sections, as well as the cleverness of the transitions to and from the central segment.
Finally, the B-minor Sonata, ample opportunity for Ax to display his virtuosity, and he met its challenges handily and with intensive exploration of the music. In the second-movement Scherzo, the pianist made the airy main theme sparkle, and in the contemplative Trio, he balanced gently rippling figures with a steady underlying beat. Proceeding to the Largo without a pause, he powerfully intoned the octaves of its opening march before investing in the movement’s interior world. The Finale provided a delightful finish to this challenging program, Ax dashing off the coda’s runs spectacularly.
He offered an encore, the Nocturne in F-sharp from Opus 15, composed a decade earlier than the ‘late’ period Ax had just traveled with such illumination.
Two Nocturnes, Op.55; Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat, Op.61; Three Mazurkas, Op.56; Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op.60; Nocturne in E, Op.62/2; Scherzo in E, Op.54; Berceuse in D-flat, Op.57; Impromptu in G-flat, Op.51; Piano Sonata in B-minor, Op.58