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Emmanuel Ax Mounts the Battlements With Two Giants

April 25, 2010

As every classical music lover knows by now, this is a big anniversary year for Chopin and Schumann. Still, somehow we are never quite prepared to fully comprehend their vast achievements as composers for the piano. Emanuel Ax’s recital at Davies Symphony Hall Sunday showed how difficult it is to reconcile these two giants of the Romantic period, even at a range of 200 years after their births.

To begin the recital with the Polonaise-Fantasie (1845), Chopin’s last large work for piano solo, was a daring choice. Liszt felt it “possessed little value for real art.” It seems odd today that this arch romantic apparently could not come to terms with its improvisatory and experimental form. Chopin seems undecided about where to begin, and only gradually do we hear, distantly, the dance rhythms of the Polonaise. Lost in rumination, the composer is at his least public, revealing doubts and only hinting at the glory that is to come.

Ax etched the pianissimo passages exquisitely, and in doing so he thoroughly refuted Liszt’s doubts. Most of all, I appreciated the clarity Ax brought to the various contrapuntal lines that displayed Chopin’s lifelong admiration for Bach.

Three Mazurkas followed, and seemed to be included as a transition to the Schumann Fantasy, another work that radically contrasts big orchestral statements with moments of utmost intimacy. The Mazurkas are probably Chopin’s most intimate works, and I felt that though Ax brought his customary command of color to bear, the confessions they contained seemed lost in the vast open spaces of Davies Hall.

Much has been said of the difficulties that Schumann (and Chopin, too) had with large-scale forms. Schumann’s Fantasy presents a different set of problems from Chopin’s Opus 61. It is both an homage to Beethoven (he quotes from that composer’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte at the close of the first movement) and, at the same time, a lament for what seemed an impossible love for Clara Wieck.

Although Clara was later to become Schumann’s wife, her estrangement from him at the time led him to despair, even if it did inspire his greatest piano works. The Beethoven/“Beloved” double whammy also caused Schumann some musical doubts: He could not decide how to end the third and final movement of the Fantasy, which does not go out in a blaze of glory, as Chopin’s did, but rather expires in rapt contemplation of the beloved. In an alternative ending, discovered a few years ago, Schumann brings back the “distant beloved” ending of the first movement, thereby presenting us with a quote within a quote, drastically changing to the way the performer and therefore the listener conceives of the work as a whole.

Grief at Arm’s Length

It was this text that Ax chose to play. Having confessed to having added the piece to his repertoire only in the last few years, it was perhaps less problematical for him than had he been playing the “traditional” version since he was 15. Endings aside, the impetuosity that characterizes the first movement (marked mit Leidenschaft) keeps dissolving into hopeless longing. Ill at ease with these contrasts, Ax, it seems, has not yet come to terms with the grief that the work contains. Conversely, a too-quick tempo in the second movement, a triumphal March, which Schuman marks “Moderato,” sounded restless and rushed. The infamously difficult coda, an outburst of treacherous leaping chords, could not, even under the fabulous fingers of Emanuel Ax, supply the contrasting burst of speed and exultation demanded at the conclusion.

After intermission came another major Schumann work, the Fantasiestücke Op. 12. The artist seemed more comfortable in these shorter, if no less demanding, pieces. Here Ax’s superlative technique could sparkle and shine. This time, the transition to Mazurkas — some new ones especially composed for him by Thomas Adés — sounded just right. Ax gave himself to them completely, and they sounded fresh and engaging, if not exactly echt-Polish. The last two present a dichotomy of tempo, going from prestissimo to grave, while still retaining flavors of the dance rhythms (and the composer) that inspired them.

Finally came the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, which Ax played with tremendous élan and dash. In this truly rousing performance, Ax showed he was born to play in the grand manner and, in doing so, made it sound as simple as singing Happy Birthday.

Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who gives lecture/recitals every Friday at the Berkeley Arts festival.