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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