Ashkenazy and Ax in an inspired partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 3, 2017

Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor, Op. 20
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
 Encore:
 Schumann: Des Abends, No. 1 from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

In the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert on home turf since returning from an extensive – and by all accounts, highly successful – European tour, the stage of Severance Hall boasted the distinguished presence of two of their most veteran collaborators. Serving as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor from 1987-94, Vladimir Ashkenazy made his first podium appearance in Cleveland since 2010. A pair of works by Elgar framed an early Beethoven piano concerto, the central work bringing forth the much-admired Emanuel Ax.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Vladimir Ashkenazy, photo credit Keith Saunders

Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra is the work of burgeoning yet not fully formed talent, but as attractive as it is compact at just over ten minutes in duration. The lilting first movement sounded quite literally piacevole (“pleasant”) in the Cleveland strings, highlighted by a solo passage from concertmaster William Preucil. The songful Larghetto was the heart of the work, and a sure sign of all that was to come for the composer, while the brief finale recalled the opening in its return to triple meter to neatly bookend the work.

A gentle outlining of the tonic C major triad opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and grew in urgency to introduce Ax’s sparkling entry in the solo piano. Ax’s graceful playing flowed with an effortless charm, while there was much heightened drama in the development as Beethoven began to break away from Mozart’s model of the classical concerto, and the extended cadenza showed Ax as a fiery virtuoso. In the slow movement, one was immediately struck by the inclusion of the piano in the opening breaths, and this music of great beauty was further enhanced by the singing clarinets. At the other end of the spectrum was the jocular concluding rondo which bordered on the rambunctious. Ax responded to the warmly enthusiastic reception that followed with an deeply lyrical account of Schumann’s Des Abends (incidentally, a favorite encore of the pianist, having been his choice for the two previous concerto appearances of his I’ve seen – see here and here).

Emanuel Ax_by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax, photo credit Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Written only a few years after the Serenade, Elgar’s Enigma Variations show him at the height of his compositional powers, and was a work that ensured his enduring fame. The theme was presented not without a shroud of mystery – enigmatic indeed – while the first variation was a loving portrait of the composer’s wife, Alice. A variegated chromaticism made the second variation a more pedantic affair, while interjections from the bassoon gave the following a childlike, impish humor. A rich viola solo marked the Ysobel variation in a nod towards the titular violist, and its successor (“Troyte”) was boisterous and big-boned.

The famous “Nimrod” variation was predictably a highpoint, its lush textures building to a cathedral-like resound. Given his long association with several of the London orchestras, it seemed Ashkenazy was able to offer particularly keen insight into this quintessentially British music, “Nimrod” being perhaps the British equivalent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. In contrast, the “Dorabella” variation was featherlight and stammering. A wistful cello solo made for a somber tribute to Elgar’s cellist fried Basil Nevinson, and the penultimate variation featured a fine clarinet solo from Afendi Yusuf in an invocation of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The last variation was Elgar’s portrait of himself, grandiose, and with the self-assurance of a composer utterly convinced of his abilities (albeit a bit more modest than Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben). Surely a high mark of the banner centennial season, let us hope Ashkenazy’s next appearance does not entail another seven year wait!

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Ax shows his lyrical gift in Schubert and Chopin

Emanuel Ax, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
May 3, 2017

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D935
Chopin: Impromptu in A-flat major, Op. 29
Chopin: Impromptu in F-sharp major, Op. 36
Chopin: Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 51
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66
Samuel Adams: Impromptu No. 2, “After Schubert”
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Encores:
Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2
Chopin: Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 34 No. 1

Awarded biennially since 2006, Northwestern’s Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance now claims a veritable who’s who of the piano amongst its laureates.  Each recipient spends time in residency on campus, working with music students and presenting a public recital, and 2016 winner Emanuel Ax closed this season’s Skyline Piano Artist Series Wednesday evening.  Ax presented one of his characteristically thoughtful programs, exploring the impromptu in sterling examples by Schubert and Chopin along with a new addition to the genre by Samuel Adams, rounded off by Chopin’s incomparable B minor piano sonata.

Emanuel Ax
Emanuel Ax at the Galvin Recital Hall, all photos credit Todd Rosenberg
The evening opened with Schubert’s posthumously published set of Four Impromptus, D935 – and piano devotees will note that fellow Lane Prize winner Murray Perahia can be heard in the same work this Sunday at Symphony Center.  An arresting opening began the set, unsettling but calmed in due course by the legato thirds under Ax’s silken tone.  The sudden shifts to the minor gave the piece an unpredictable, mercurial quality, and Ax’s conception was spacious and improvisatory.  The second impromptu was characterized by an intensely lyrical chordal melody complemented by gracefully flowing interludes.  The theme of the B flat impromptu was of a charming refinement, but I felt Ax could have aspired to greater contrast in the ensuing set of five variations, even if the composer provided only one in the minor. While Ax’s sound was exquisite, it felt this was achieved through an unnecessarily cautious approach, and this was much the case in the final impromptu as well – while its folk-like, quasi-Hungarian melody certainly had fire, one still wanted a bit more heft.

Robert Schumann famously described Schubert’s D935 impromptus as a coherent if veiled sonata; Chopin’s four examples of the genre, however, are quite independent of one another, bearing little more in common than the rather vague title.  Nonetheless, Ax presented them as a suite, an interesting approach insofar as it juxtaposed works from various points in the composer’s life.  The Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major was highlighted by its songful middle section, and under Ax’s guidance the circuitous, labyrinthine coda felt entirely purposeful.  In the following work, the deeply felt music yearned and grew to great passions.  While it may be the least played of the Chopin impromptus, Ax made a strong case for the Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major in its arching, appealing melody.  Despite its late opus number owing to posthumous publication, the familiar Fantaisie-Impromptu is the earliest of the four, and Ax gave it an energetic workout with impressive prestidigitation.

The second half opened with a 2016 work of Samuel Adams which Ax himself commissioned, and the attention to Adams’ work is certainly topical as he currently serves as one of the two Mead Composers in Residence at the Chicago Symphony.  In concert with the theme of the first half, the work in question was the second of a set of three impromptus, this selection subtitled “After Schubert”.  As a whole the three are intended to be inserted between each of the D935 impromptus, drawing comparison to Brett Dean’s Hommage á Brahms, which Ax presented in a 2014 recital at Symphony Center, superimposed within Brahms’ Op. 119.  While it certainly would be interesting to hear the Adams in that fashion, No. 2 – a substantial piece, surpassing the 10 minute mark – functioned well independently (although I thought it would have been more logical to program it in between the Schubert and Chopin, and that way it would literally have been “after Schubert”).

Opening with quasi-Schubertian melodic fragments over a rippling accompaniment, it was as if one was experiencing distant, refracted memories of the Schubert impromptus, along with a perhaps more obvious invocation of the elder composer’s final B flat major piano sonata.  Cast in Schubert’s preferred ternary form, the middle section fared somewhat repetitive, but the brief return of the A section rounded off what was generally a very attractive piece.

Departing impromptu territory, Ax concluded the program with Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, and it was here he was at his finest.  The first movement was grand yet tautly structured, while the fleeting, quicksilver scherzo put the pianist’s dexterous fingers on full display.  The heart of the work is in the slow movement; its declamatory opening soon melted away into a divinely gorgeous nocturne.  Though filled with bravura runs and effects, the melody was never lost in the busyness of the finale which closed the work with enormous passion and drama.

The warm, enthusiastic reception brought Ax back to the keyboard for two encores, both by Chopin: an elegant account of the Nocturne in F sharp major, along with the Waltz in A flat major, stylish and buoyant.

Emanuel Ax