Emanuel Ax, piano; Works by Bizet, Rameau, Debussy and Chopin, Chan Centre, January 18, 2015.

One thing that has always impressed me about Emanuel Ax is how well the pianist can come to engage an audience through interesting programming, often subtly combining intriguing, but lesser-known, works with the more popular standard ones.  His long standing colleague, Yo-Yo Ma, seemingly does the same.  This was a long programme, moving from a little-known set of variations by Bizet, through Rameau, then on to considerable Debussy, before finally coming home to rest with the more characteristic Chopin Scherzos.  Even for the many wonderful performances sponsored by the Vancouver Recital Society over the years, it would be difficult to think of a more spontaneous and overwhelming standing ovation than the one at the end of this concert.  Was it because the pianist is now increasingly an icon of sorts?  Was it because he originally grew up in Winnipeg?  Was it because each performance vied with the best we had heard?  No, it was because Emanuel Ax truly provided a model of how to execute a concert -- with variety, emotional balance, but above all, a consummate musical integrity and consistency that simply forced the listener to follow on, always assured that they were in totally reliable hands. 

The opening Bizet Chromatic Variations was both fun and convincing.  These opera arrangements do not really fit the piano but, even in this form, they definitely have a seductive variety and obvious colour.  Ax used tasteful, but not exaggerated, expression to bring these variations home, finding their sense of play and the (almost tongue-in-cheek) ominous gestures that unify the opening and close of the work.  The six Rameau pieces had their own charm.  Of course, Ax’s Rameau was a very pianistic rendering, and purists could object, but the slower pieces exhibited an elegance and an attractive pensive quality -- as one can also find in his excellent Haydn -- while the feathery lightness in the more athletic passages was appealing in its own way, though not particularly heavy on verve and point. This was basically refined playing, always cognizant of flow and, in the famous “La Poule,” illustrating an enviable structural control over its weight, texture and momentum. 

Some of the same qualities were present in Ax’s Debussy, as large a jump in time as that is.  The treatment of Les Estampes was very exact and indeed structurally aware, seeing each of its three movements as a cohesive whole.  It was apparent right away that this was not going to be a particularly sensual reading that conjured up nuance, langour and other types of scented fragrance.   This was Debussy very much in the light of day, intelligent, purposive and clear, with a good range of colour -- and indeed fully enjoyable.  I noticed the effort to get phrase shapes exactly right in Hommage à Rameau, and here there was possibly greater suspension in the longer lines. Still, it was still the conscientiousness of the reading that stood out, as it did in L’Isle Joyeux.

The pianist then finally arrived at the four Chopin Scherzos.  I had not really thought too much about how to perform these together in concert until a recent traversal by Arnaldo Cohen set the task of playing them continuously (without applause) as a sort of an extended tone-poem.  I am sure this is much more difficult, and it is sufficient to say that Emanuel Ax followed the standard practice of one at a time, with applause after each.  I can still remember Ax’s very first RCA recordings of Chopin from the middle 1970’s.  His readings were not particularly big or architecturally-imposing but they did have a strong sensitivity and intelligence, married to an attractively youthful impetuosity.  His recording of the Scherzos was indeed one of the best of that period, the 2nd edition of the Penguin Guide citing the young pianist as “a pianist of no mean virtuosity and … an artist to his fingertips,” and placing his recording of these works in the company of the very finest. 

These outlines still persist in his current performances, though his readings are clearly more detailed and thought-out and, at the same time, possibly less spontaneous and more insistent.  The quick dynamic contrasts are still there, as is the affecting response to the tender reveries, but I think that there is greater weight to the impetuosity – now more bold and emphatic in rubato, though maintaining sparkle.  Nonetheless, there is a very tight-knit quality to it all. The playing still does not pretend to be earth-shaking Chopin, leaving its finely-honed sense of motion and structure to always shine through.  I particularly liked the treatment of the 2nd and 3rd Scherzos, not to take anything away from the considerable feeling achieved in the 4th.  I should remark that the Ax’s virtuoso skills are still splendid. 

It was a long and varied journey from the opening Bizet to Chopin, but not once did Emanuel Ax’s concentration falter.  The pianist quietly went about his business, doing no more and no less than he had intended.  There were really very few emotional extremes sought and very few moments of  demonstrative bravura, but there was a resilient consistency and integrity in all the pianism -- which is exactly why this recital added up to something very special.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015